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Apr. 14 2010 - 1:26 pm | 162 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Street signs, Israel-Palestine and terrorism

A woman walks past a street sign indicating th...

Image by AFP via Daylife

The New York Times ran a piece today on the Palestinian Authority naming a street in Ramallah for Hamas bombmaker Yahya Ayyash. The piece encapsulates the emotional passions, rhetoric and seeming inability of Americans to comprehend the Arab-Israeli conflict quite nicely. It also is an example of why, frankly, it’s so damn difficult to understand the region. To whit:

1. Hamas and Fatah (the dominant party in the Palestinian Authority within the West Bank) are supposed to be arch-enemies. Both parties have undertaken bloody purges of the other’s members within their respective West Bank and Gaza statelets. Hamas self-consciously identifies as a religious party while Fatah skews secular.
2. Despite the fact that they hate each other, Fatah named a street in Ramallah for a Hamas member:

The street signs not only honor Mr. Ayyash, but also offer a concise biography in Arabic and English: “Yahya Ayyash 1966-1996. Born in Rafat (Nablus), he studied electrical engineering in Birzeit University, he was active in Al Qassam Brigades, and Israel claimed that he was responsible for a series of bomb attacks, and he was assassinated in Beit Lahya (Gaza Strip) on 5/1/1996.”

Depending on one’s political orientation, the rationale is either:

1. Hamas is still popular among West Bank Palestinians and Fatah is “playing to the crowd,” as it is.
2. That Fatah is engaging in public propaganda to mend fences with Hamas.
3. That Hamas and Fatah are just two sides of the same coin.

Predictably, Israeli officials tried to turn the street naming into a propaganda coup, with journo Ethan Bronner quoting the Palestinian Authority’s response:

After noting that street names are chosen by municipalities, and that Ayyash Street dates back years, the Palestinian Authority attacked the names of hundreds of Israeli streets and institutions saying they honored men who had “committed crimes against Palestinians.” Among those it considered beyond the pale was Menachem Begin, the former prime minister and Nobel laureate.

As the Palestinian government statement put it, “Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was responsible for the murder of innocent Palestinians in 1948 and is infamous for his role in the Deir Yassin massacre, has museums, streets and many public spaces across Israel named after him. Most were done through government funding.”

Begin’s Irgun militant group was also responsible for the horrifying 1946 King David Hotel bombing, which killed 91 and injured 46, which Bronner did not mention.

Then there’s the fact that dozens of streets in Israel — and a town — are named for a Jewish terrorist who attempted to… collaborate with the Nazi Party. Avraham “Yair” Stern was the leader of the Stern Gang/Lehi, a militant Zionist organization which declared war on the British following the 1939 ban on Jewish immigration to Palestine.

There was even, ironically enough for a Jewish armed group in the Holocaust-era, Nazi collaboration — Lehi members attempted to broker a secret agreement with Nazi Germany in 1941 offering to “take part in the war on Germany’s side” in exchange for Germany facilitating the migration of Jews from Germany and occupied Europe to Palestine. Predictablly enough, the Germans did not take them up on the offer.

But nevermind bungled Nazi collaboration. Lehi’s roster of operations included a massive bombing attack on the British police garrison in Haifa which killed four and maimed 140, a series of mail bombs sent to British authorities and a campaign of bombing Palestine’s public transit.

These days, streets named for Stern exist in most major Israeli cities. Meanwhile, the Northern Israeli town of Kochav Yair (Yair’s Star) is named for Stern and is one of the highest-income municipalities in Israel.

Again, history is a messy business.


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    A New York-based journalist and blogger who has spent extensive time in the Middle East and is currently working on an MA thesis in Middle Eastern Studies. My thesis focuses on the 2009 Iranian election demonstrations and their coverage in the international media.

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