Israeli towns are often still identified with the Arabic names used before the 1948 war

In an attempt to create uniformity in road signs, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz recently ordered the implementation of a project to adjust English and Arabic versions of city, town and village names to a direct transliteration of Hebrew.

Road signs in Israel are presently written in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, and feature the names used by each language. Jerusalem, for example, is indentified as “Yerushalaim” in Hebrew, "Jerusalem" in English and “Al Quds” in Arabic. In addition, a wide variety of English and Arabic spellings can be found throughout the country, which Ministry officials say “reflect the vast changes and development in Israel's highways.”

Caesarea, for example, appears as Caesarea, Qesarya, Qesariyya and Ceysaria.

In the works for over a year, the new signs would still feature Hebrew, English and Arabic, but rely exclusively on Hebrew transliteration. In all three languages, for instance, Jerusalem will be Yerushalayim, Natzrat for Nazareth, Kesariya for Caesarea, and Yafo for Jaffa.

According to Yeshaayahu Ronen, head of the Transportation Planning Department at the ministry, the inconsistency presents difficulties to tourists and drivers.

"The lack of uniform spelling on signs has been a problem for those speaking foreign languages, citizens and tourists alike," he said. "It impairs drivers' ability to find their way, and we have decided to follow many other countries around the world and make the transliteration of all names correspond directly with Hebrew."

Under the project, Ronen's department was authorized by Katz to decide which signs would be replaced. More than 2,000 names are expected to be adjusted.

While announcing the new policy, Katz identified one of the causes for the lack of uniformity. "On Palestinian maps, Israeli towns are often still identified with the Arabic names used before the 1948 war" when Israel was created, he said. Following the War of Independence in 1948, Israel renamed many areas with Hebrew names, often of biblical origin.

Announcement Was Misunderstood

Several media outlets wrongly reported Katz’s announcement as a decision to completely remove English and Arabic from all signs, and serving to rebut Arab resistance to use Hebrew names for some Israeli towns.

AFP tied the announcement to Israeli elections earlier this year which “brought a right-wing coalition to power that includes the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party, which has demanded Israel's Arab minority demonstrate greater loyalty to the Jewish state.”

Katz’s above quote concerning Arabs continuing to use pre-1948 names was taken to mean that the new policy “is a tit-for-tat against Palestinians who do not use the Hebrew name when referring to certain Israeli towns.”

Arab Knesset Members expressed their outrage over the move.

"Al-Quds will remain Al-Quds and Shfaram will remain Shefa-'Amr," said MK Ahmad Tibi (Ra'am-Ta'al). "Minister Katz is mistaken if he thinks that changing a few words can erase the existence of the Arab people or their connection to Israel. This is a blatant attempt at harming the Arabic language and everything it represents."

The decision is too far-reaching, argued Hadash party chairman Mohammad Barakeh. "Yisrael Katz is merely the transportation minister and it appears that the power went to his head… I hereby inform him that he cannot change the nature of a place. Yisrael Katz will come and go but Shefa-'Amr is here to stay."