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Palestinian ‘Name Game’ is No Trivial Matter

(All photos: TML Photos)

Less than a week had gone by since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, when Suleiman Shafhe, a veteran correspondent for Israel’s Channel 2, depicted a new reality in the evacuated areas.

Members of Hamas, he showed on camera, had taken over a small area of rubble which used to be the Jewish community Kfar Darom. They had set up a makeshift exhibition of arms, ammunition and missiles, a token of their struggle against Israel.

The reporter ended the item with his hallmark signature. “This is Suleiman Shafhe, reporting from what used to be Kfar Darom,” he said. But as he uttered the last two words, a masked man snapped fiercely from behind him.

For this Hamas member, the name Kfar Darom was a thing of the past.

Yasin City, Hamas now calls it, in honor of the late spiritual leader of the organization, Ahmad Yasin, whom Israel assassinated in March 2004.

Palestinian officials deny the name ‘Yasin City’ has any official status, and insist it was named on a whim, without authorization, by a small group of Hamas members.

But this story highlights similar cases in which Palestinians are commemorating their martyrs through names of streets, parks, schools and other facilities. The trend is a headache for foreign donors who are seeing their money invested in projects which glorify the people their governments despise.

A spokeswoman for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) confirmed the agency is “prohibited by U.S. law” from funding projects which recognize people who have been linked to terrorism.

As a policy, she said, the agency “does not provide assistance to any school, community center or other facility that is named after any person or group of persons that has advocated, sponsored or committed such acts.”

The spokeswoman could not name specific USAID projects with problematic names, but other agency officials confirmed cases in which donors and locals came to loggerheads over a title.

Former director of USAID in the West Bank and Gaza, Larry Garber, recalled several cases during his term, which ended last year, where Palestinians named USAID projects after people involved in terrorist activities.

In one case, a few years ago, the agency was funding the renovation of a school which Palestinians decided to name after Dalal Mughrabi.

Mughrabi led an attack on an Israeli bus in March 1978, in what became known as the ‘coastal road massacre.’ More than 30 Israeli civilians were killed in the attack, as well as an American photojournalist.

“We protested to the Palestinian Authority,” Garber said. “Eventually we understood the name had been changed.” However, the controversy continued when the agency learned the name had not been changed in all the official documents.

Shortly before the elections for the Palestinian Authority chairmanship in January 2005, the Palestinian news agency WAFA published a list of schools where voting stations would be situated. Dalal Mughrabi school, near Hebron, was registered as one of these facilities, reflecting the name had not been changed back in all documentation.

In a separate incident, Garber recalled, a park was named after Salah Khalaf, who was involved in the Munich massacre in 1972 and accused of involvement in the killing of two Americans.

Both these cases, he said, prompted the agency to be more careful in scrutinizing names of projects to ensure they are not offensive.

To the best of his knowledge, Garber said, this situation is unique to the Palestinian Authority. “It was one of those many realities that we seem to face in Palestine and not elsewhere,” he said.

Political pressures

This is not a simple issue of Palestinians flexing muscles in the face of foreign donors. Often, the name of a street or a facility sparks power struggles between Palestinian factions or political forces. Politics are a major driving force in these conflicts.

Nihad Al-Mughany, Assistant Mayor for Urban Planning and Building Control in the Municipality of Gaza City, illustrated this point through a recent anecdote.

Al-Mughany spoke of a main artery which connects the east and west sides of Gaza City and which is named after a former Gaza mayor. In 2004, he recalled, shortly after Ahmad Yasin was assassinated, members of Hamas decided, of their own accord, to change the name of the street. They removed the original street signs and replaced them with new ones, christening it ‘Ahmad Yasin street.’

This was done unofficially and illegally, but Al-Mughany explained that the municipality did not think it wise to challenge Hamas, even though local government officials disagreed with the name.

The municipality eventually removed the ‘Yasin’ signs and reluctantly appeased Hamas by naming another street, (“a minor one,” according to Al-Mughany) after the slain leader. “It doesn’t mean the municipality supports Ahmad Yasin,” Al-Mughany said.

The Hamas organization, which Israel and the United States designate a terrorist organization, enjoys considerable support on the Palestinian street, especially in the impoverished streets of Gaza.

If a mayor wishes to retain his seat, even a street name can determine whether he will enjoy another term or whether voters will replace him with a candidate who demonstrates more sympathy for Hamas.

“We cannot say to the people ‘no’ because the mayor and the city council need to be elected,” Al-Mughany said.

Garber agreed that politics underscore thorny commemoration issues. This is more acute on the local level, he said, where officials are not as aware as the national politicians that a project name can cause a problem. “They have to balance their own political interests versus their desire to see the project continuing,” Garber said. Politicians on the national level are more aware of the broader political complications this could cause.

Dependency on Donor Countries

Much of the friction stems from the fact that Palestinians feel dependent, perhaps too dependent, on outside monetary aid. Al-Mughany said there is hardly any budget for development so most of the development funding comes from outside. This gives donor countries the authority to stop the cash flow if a project name is not to their liking.

A Palestinian official told The Media Line that he sees it as “undemocratic” that the Americans impose their will on the Palestinians by opposing a name.

Donor countries are giving the Gaza municipality money out of their taxpayers’ pockets, Al-Mughany said, and they need to show the people their money is going to a good cause. “We must give names that do not contravene the wishes of the donors,” he said.

In some cases, efforts are made to minimize potential friction in advance. He cited a current case in which USAID is planning to fund works on a Gazan road known as Street Number Ten. Palestinians wanted to call this road Abu Ali Mu’stafa street, named after one of the founders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was assassinated in August 2001.

After giving it some thought, “people who work in foreign donor offices” advised the municipality’s project development department to change the name back to Street Number Ten, and avoid unwanted clashes.

The name Abu Ali Mu’stafa, he said, will be given instead to a small street which has no connection to the project in question.

Define ‘terrorist’

Politics aside, there is also a dispute between Palestinians and donor countries regarding who is worthy of admirable commemoration and who is not.

A person who the West labels a terrorist, Palestinians might see as a holy warrior who died a hero in the struggle against Israel.

In the eyes of Gaza’s citizens, people like Ahmad Yasin or Saleh Shehadeh, a senior Hamas member who was assassinated in 2002 and also has a street named after him in Gaza, are not necessarily terrorists. “They are martyrs, leaders, they are respected,” Al-Mughany said.

Palestinian Minister of Local Government Kalid Qawasmeh mentioned a street in Gaza named after Khalil Al-Wazir (aka Abu Jihad), a founder of Fatah who was also involved in the costal road massacre as well as other violent episodes.

Husam Elkhuzandar, an assistant to the Palestinian minister of local government said he sees nothing wrong with naming a street after Ahmad Yasin. “What’s the problem?” he said. “He’s a shahid (a martyr), the Jews killed him. Whether he belonged to an armed faction is irrelevant,” he said. “In the end, he was a Palestinian.”

Martyrs as Role Models

“The highest status you can reach in the Arab Islamic culture is to be named a martyr,” said Eyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist and Director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme.

Sarraj emphasized that a martyr (shahid in Arabic) does not necessarily designate a person killed while fighting an enemy. The title is often used to describe people who died an unnatural or untimely death.

But in the case of a suicide bomber, or someone who died during clashes with the Israeli forces, they are taken to a higher level, Sarraj explained.

Sarraj stressed that he personally is very critical of such acts but admitted that many people regard them as heroic. “None of them are considered criminals or murderers or terrorists. On the contrary, they are glorified by people here.”

“When you walk around Gaza you find so many streets and squares named after martyrs,” he said, recalling that near his house is a square named after the person who supposedly designed the first missile.

Sarraj laments that these are the role models of Palestinian society. “We do not produce pop singers or musicians or athletes.” He said. “The society only produces these icons of resistance.”

In the meantime, the issue of commemoration in the Palestinian Authority continues to be a hot potato for world donors.

“It’s a real challenge,” Garber said. “You see how streets are named all over the world. People want to recognize whoever they feel deserves recognition and it’s not always a popular choice.”