Tel Aviv, Asharq Al-Awsat- Salahuddin al Ayyubi, Edward Said and Emile Habibi are among the renowned Arab names that evoke horror in General Yoel Lavi’s heart. A former Israeli career army officer, Lavi is now the mayor of the city of Ramla. Symbolically, these names bear the spirit of the greats who are now deceased and yet prevail, while Lavi is still alive, his military exploits are numerous as he continues to serve in the Israeli reserves. Lavi cannot fathom why the city of Ramla has Arabic street names commemorating figures such as the aforementioned. Upon hearing A-Dar’s [a local advocacy group that lobbies for improved housing for Arab residents] demand to preserve these street names, he exploded in a hysterical outburst, cursing, threatening and demanding that they leave the city – in fact, he even proposed changing the city’s name to one that was more suitable to the Jews and their heritage. Thus he spread the poison of enmity into an atmosphere that was ready to receive it. The extremist Israeli right-wing rushed to Lavi’s support, calling for purging the city of Arabs, while the Israeli police deployed huge numbers of officers to suppress all Arab protest attempts – even arresting the Israelis who stood in solidarity with the Arabs.
This is how Ramla’s name made its way to newspaper headlines and other media outlets. Journalists flocked to visit from all over the world, which led to the awareness of the city’s Arab residents of the dangers that surround them. As a result, they united their ranks and launched a peaceful and rational resistance that aims at consolidating their existence on their land and reinforcing their Arab presence by naming their streets and neighborhoods after Arab figures.
Engineer Buthaina Dabeet, one of the initiators and founders of this movement said, “We are grateful to those racists because they pushed us to unite and made us aware of the present dangers.”
However, a closer examination reveals the depth of the issues and poses a question that is much larger than street names and the mayor’s words – it is a long story that is older than the history of Israel itself and an issue with the present Israeli government as it has been with all the former Israeli governments.
Mythically, Ramla is the sister city of Lod [also known as al Lid and Lydda] that is located in close proximity. Both cities played major historical roles in ancient and contemporary history by virtue of being at the center of Palestine’s coastal plain, which made them a meeting point for all the caravans traveling from east to west, north to south and the return routes for both directions.
Lod is the elder sister and the older city, dating back to thousands of years. It was conquered by the Pharaohs in the 15th Century BC and also seized by the Romans in a conquest in AD 70, after which they formed the Roman colony, Diospolis. The Apostle Paul graced the city with a long visit and the Arabs elevated its significance when Amr Bin al A’as conquered the city in AD 636 during Umar Bin al Khattab’s caliphate, after which it was made the capital.
Ramla, however, was not established until AD 715. It was founded by the Umayyed Caliph Suleiman Ibn Abd al Malik while he was the governor of Palestine. It is recounted that the city derived its name from the fact that it is mostly made of sandy terrain, yet there is an Arab tale that narrates that the caliph was so moved by the hospitality shown to him by a woman who lived in a humble tent on the outskirts of Lod that when he built the city, he named it after her, in commemoration of her generosity. What transpired was that Lod became marginalized in significance, while Ramla was made the capital during his reign.
The two cities flourished and prospered in the Islamic era until they were conquered by the Crusaders in 1099 where they established their Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in the region and were to remain there until Salahuddin al Ayyubi expelled them. He liberated Ramla but was unable to do the same for Lod by virtue of its impregnable fortress. This launched a history of battles and occupation for the two cities in which they sometimes emerged defeated and at others were victorious, also suffering natural disasters such as several earthquakes, a cholera outbreak, mass deaths and a locust invasion that destroyed all their bounties. The cities did not witness any peace or tranquility during the Ottoman era, or during the British Mandate of Palestine, and the same is true today in the modern Israeli era.
The Zionist Movement placed restrictions in the cities of Lod and Ramla following the 1936 Palestinian revolution, still, the Palestinian rebels were able to achieve much by virtue of Ramla being rich and resourceful – and the weapons are borne by those with the means. One of the forces, led by Hafez Saqr, successfully executed a military operation in which a train carrying British troops was derailed and bombed near the town. The Zionist forces were forbidden to cross by train after the incident.
When Israel was established in May 1948, many in Ramla and Lod were scared due to what had transpired in the years of the mandate. Israel decided to not interfere with the cities until after the war, while preparing a customized military strategy that was suitable for the situation. After waiting two months to launch its attack on the two cities, it was executed by a regulatory army following the end of the war in what can be considered an occupation by all means. Fearing the presence of guerrillas among the civilian ranks, Israel bombed the two cities using two small planes that had belonged to the British, which were left behind in the airfield and bequeathed to Israel following the British withdrawal, thus marked the first two cities in Arab history to be bombed by the Israeli Air Force. It was only then that the regulatory Army Forces entered, 10,000-men strong. Ramla surrendered without resisting, its leaders acknowledging that their force could not confront Israel, while Lod resisted with its humble capabilities. It surrendered two days later. Still, Israel had not achieved it goal which was to obliterate the cities and their residents. According to Israeli historian Benny Morris in his book on the history of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, when the army leaders congregated under Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, among them the army commanders Yigall Allon and Yitzhak Rabin, Allon asked the PM: “What do you want us to do with the Arabs?” to which the response came after a moment of silence: “Expel them,” said the PM pointing his finger towards the East.
Israel found Lod to be especially problematic because of its resistance and its extensive history of operations. It did not want any Arabs in the area around the airport, which had become an active and major center for political life and trade since its establishment in 1938. Thus it worked systematically to evacuate the area of all Arabs.
Prior to the occupation of Lod and Ramla on 11 July 1948, Israel seized 83 neighboring villages, forcing their residents to leave. Even after the two cities surrendered, the Israeli Forces carried out a number of operations in which they expelled masses and which resulted in a number of massacres. One of these massacres took place in a mosque in which innocent women and their children along with a group of elderly people had sought refuge within it. An armed Palestinian youth had come out of the mosque firing on an Israeli soldier after which the soldier’s brother arrived carrying a machine gun and opened fire on everyone inside the mosque. It took many long years for this incident to come to light since the authorities shut down the mosque and restricted entry for over 30 years. When the mosque was finally opened again, the traces of blood were still visible on the ground.
What many racists in Israel consider to be a ‘grave mistake’ in Ramla and Lod is the existence of approximately 2,500 of the cities’ residents there. When Israel needed someone to clear the corpses, 500 people were selected from each of the two cities for the task. They were forbidden to remain in their homes and were instead sent to a camp that was established for this purpose that was enclosed with barbwire, preventing them from leaving until the task was completed. The camp was named ‘ghetto’ after the camps that the Jews were forced to live in by the Nazis in Germany and other European countries until the end of the Second World War. Four months later, after Israel had established its feet firmly on the ground, and after the world started to catch wind of what had happened in the duration of its rule in Palestine, the ghetto was closed down and its residents were allowed to return to their homes. Sadly, it was no homecoming and many of them arrived too late; for their homes had been occupied by Jewish immigrants.
In this manner, approximately 110,000 Palestinians became citizens in Israel, living under Israeli rule. They came to known as the Palestinians of 1948. In a statement that made Ben-Gurion famous, he said that keeping them as citizens in the Jewish state was a ‘grave mistake’.
It would seem that the mayor of Ramla, by wanting to change the Arab name ‘Ramla’, and by forbidding the use of Arab street names makes him one of those in Israel who bear the task of righting the wrong.
According to Buthaina Dabeet, “There are approximately 16,000-17,000 Arab residents in Ramla, which comprises a quarter of the population, and nearly 22,000 Arabs are present in Lod, which makes up 27 percent of the city’s population – the rest are Jews, of course, from all the different walks of life, easterners and westerners. A large segment of these Jews are affiliated to the right-wing forces, living in abject poverty, they have managed to vent their anger out on the Arabs. Since the rise of the state, we have felt that the government has not abandoned its plan to displace the Arabs. It has systematically continued to demolish all Arab landmarks in the two cities, obliterating all traces of their Arab identity, fully knowing that Ramla today is the only city in Israel that is built by Arabs. Even Israel itself recognizes and acknowledges that. A number of historical monuments have been destroyed, in addition to the demolition of approximately ten mosques. All the old houses, which used to be an Arab mark, when vacated, whether the occupants were Arabs or Jews, are then claimed by the governmental company in charge of settlements. Exercising its ‘legal right’ as the proprietor of the house (in accordance with the governmental files), it buys it before anyone else can lock it up and destroy it.”
Dabeet adds that, “Most Arab neighborhoods nowadays live under the threat of demolition; the majority is built without a license. This is because the occupants are mainly ‘neo-Palestinian refugees’, who were deported from Negev under different circumstances and were housed here without the licenses to build and without establishing modern neighborhoods for them. Not only did they confiscate their land and force another way of life upon them that differed from their life in the desert with all its traditions, they kept them living under obscure and illegal circumstances only to displace them again – in accordance with governmental policy. After every war, they have also brought here a number of the fugitives who escaped from the West Bank and Gaza for their involvement in activities, or who are suspected of being agents. They were first housed in the Jewish neighborhoods but the latter protested saying they were social and moral delinquents mainly because they were Arabs. As such, the majority of Lod and Ramla’s inhabitants are Arabs from other places who live under the threat of deportation. Under this scheme, approximately 5,500 Arab houses were destroyed, which leaves nearly 1,500 Arab houses in Ramla and 2,000 in Lod – all under the threat of demolition, and of which a third have already received demolition orders.”
How should the Arab inhabitants face this scheme, should they surrender or confront it? Dabeet answered, “Unfortunately, we have woken up too late, but we have woken up. Perhaps it is thanks to those who threaten our existence and who eradicate the Arab monuments in Lod and Ramla. At A-Dar, we have been working since 2001 to raise our voices and organize our struggle for a peaceful and legal resistance to embed our historical reality in our country since it is an Arab country that has its history, landmarks, sanctities and the Arabic language. Then came the initiative within this context to reinstate the Arab names – at least to the streets in the Arab neighborhoods. The Arab public shows a significant awareness of these efforts and is uniting from all the different sects and neighborhoods for this cause. Even on an individual level, there are many attempts to rise out of this situation in which we have become entrapped to become a poverty stricken society that is detached from education and culture. Today there is an insistence to educate the youth in universities and involve them in social and political activities in all the different cities (in which both Arabs and Jews live), such as Haifa, Jaffa and Acre, among others. Together, with the rest of our Arab supporters in Israel we unite to struggle against these racist schemes. It pleases us that a substantial number of Jews support this struggle and are involved with us, among them are the activists from the organization Zochrot [Remembering] who organize visits to the plundered mixed Arab cities, carrying signs that bear their Arab names on them.”