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6 Jan, 2011 08:49

Sign of the times: Palestinian city’s streets honor heroes and “terrorists”

Sign of the times:  Palestinian city’s streets honor heroes and “terrorists”

The West Bank city of Ramallah is naming its streets to mark its 100th anniversary, but some of the choices are causing controversy as they honor people involved in planning terrorist acts.

This naming is part of a regeneration scheme started two years ago, but it is already being seen by some as a sign of growing extremism.Before the scheme was launched, there were no street names, street signs or house numbers that could help people navigate around the city. Janet Mikhail, Mayor of Ramallah, says it is “a human right for citizens to know where they are.”Thus Yasser Arafat gets a square. And a street is called after the neighbourhood Al-Nuzha that used to exist in Arab Jaffa in the 1930s. Another street called Al-Awdeh, meaning ‘return’, is a call for Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.The criteria for choosing a name are simple: heroes, places, and ideas supported by the Palestinian people.“We don’t differentiate between Hamas or Fatah,” explains Janet Mikhail.If anything, the opposite, as members of both organizations fighting for liberation are glorified. Which might surprise those who think the modern city of Ramallah would shy away from praising stalwarts of Hamas, an organization considered by many world powers as terrorist. One of the thoroughfares is named after chief Hamas bomb maker – Yahya Ayyash, dubbed “the engineer”. For three years he was Israel’s most wanted man for masterminding suicide bombings that killed 90 Israelis, until he himself was killed.As political analyst Khalil Shaheen explains, “anyone who was killed by the Israelis, even in a car accident, is considered a martyr”. Yahya Ayyash was killed by the Israeli internal security service after they tricked a friend of his into giving him a cell phone that was booby trapped. Fourteen years on his family is as proud as ever.“I’m very pleased they’ve named roads and streets after him,” says Yahya Ayyash’s mother, Aisha. “My son is in my heart and I miss him. He’s the hero of Palestine.”Surprisingly, not all the streets names are Palestinian. One street is called after Rachel Corrie, an American activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer during a demonstration in Gaza in 2003. Rachel was part of the International Solidarity Movement, a group that, as Israelis charge, aids Hamas and other Palestinian extremist groups.The decision to name a busy street in Ramallah after her was anonymous. Such attention, even to extremist groups, may be explained by the growing desire among Palestinians to change the current course of events. ”People in the West Bank are fed up with the way they have been ruled during the past 15 years and they’re eager to try something else,” believes Khalil Shaheen. Polls show Hamas growing in popularity in the West Bank, while talks between rival Palestinian faction Fatah and Israel deadlock.“Hamas is changing, Hamas is trying to speak in the language the West understands,” argues Shaheen. And as the new street signs go up in the city, it is becoming more and more clear that Hamas is also speaking in a language Ramallah Palestinians understand.