The mayor of the Palestinian town of Jatt in Israel is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the last thing a Palestinian patriot and representative of a nationalist community wants is to take down a street sign bearing the name of Yasser Arafat. On the other hand, the local official has to respect the law and the order by the Israeli minister of interior that requires governmental approval prior to posting any street sign.
In a phone interview with Al-Monitor, Mayor Muhammad Taher Wattad said the street sign has been up since 2008 when the town of Jatt merged with the nearby town of Baqa al-Gharbiya. The twin towns were under the direction of a government-appointed committee headed by Yacov Valed, an Israeli Jew, Wattad said.
Wattad insists on the right of his town to name the street after the popular Palestinian leader. “Yasser Arafat is not only a Palestinian symbol, he is the father to all Palestinians. He sacrificed his life and died as a martyr of Palestine, but for us as a legal entity, we must respect the law.”
Wattad, who is a lawyer by profession, said that the town council was surprised the street sign was never approved by the Ministry of Interior. “The current council met March 5 and decided to temporarily bring down the sign and then make an official request for approval. If the Ministry of Interior fails to agree, we will take the case all the way to the Israeli High Court.”
According to Wattad, the Arafat street sign was discovered by accident March 3 by an Israeli soldier who was lost. “The soldier was using the popular mobile software Waze when he noticed the name of Yasser Arafat Street.” He published a story on social media and the story went viral. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the issue at the beginning of the March 5 Cabinet meeting. “We cannot allow streets in the State of Israel to be named after Yasser Arafat and Haj Amin al-Husseini and others. We will make the arrangements, including new legislation if need be, so that this does not happen here." Husseini was the mufti of Jerusalem and the leader of the Palestinian national movement prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.
Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List coalition in the Israeli parliament, described Arafat as a Palestinian “symbol,” telling journalists March 6, “He is a leader of the national liberation movement and he chose peace and negotiations and he won the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Speaking on Shams Radio in Nazareth March 5, Odeh said Arafat was a leader of the Palestinian national movement. “Arafat symbolized the struggle for justice. He resisted occupation and injustice, yet he held the olive branch and the peace of the brave. It is natural that we call our streets with his name,” he told the radio station. Odeh said the minister of interior must retract his decision and stop the “witch hunt against naming our streets with national names.”
Botrus Mansour, the principal of the Baptist School in Nazareth and a member of the Israeli Bar Association, told Al-Monitor that Arafat made peace with Israel. “Arafat is of course a symbol of the Palestinian people, he made peace with Israel. The peace process stopped for different reasons, but he is not considered an enemy.”
Mansour added that the initial Israeli order was procedural, but that the decision to force the town to bring down the name sign is likely to be in a sensitive position once the courts look into it. “I think the Israeli High Court will have a difficult time rejecting the decision to name a street on Arafat’s name.”
The case of the 400-meter-long (one-quarter of a mile) street in the small village of Jatt, which is near the West Bank border, is a reflection of the continued failure of Israel and its leaders to understand their own nationals. Palestinians in Israel are loyal citizens, they have a clear and unambiguous political affiliation and a sense of brotherhood to their co-nationalists literally a few kilometers away. And unlike many Israeli Jews who immigrated to become citizens, the 20% Arab population of Israel today never left their homes when Israel was established. Accepting and legitimizing Palestinian citizens of Israel is the first step in responding to their decadeslong fight against discrimination and struggle for equal civil rights.