The Islamic Movement inside Israel

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VOL. 36


No. 2
P. 66
The Islamic Movement inside Israel

Shaykh Ra’id Salah is one of the founders of the Islamic movement in Israel and one of the most important Arab religious and political leaders in the country. The movement, founded in the 1970s, emerged officially in the early 1980s when it fielded candidates in municipal elections. Since then, it has become one of the major political and social forces among Israel’s Palestinian population, along with the communist (Hadash) and national democratic (Balad) parties. Over the past three decades the Islamic movement has gained wide popular support, largely because of its effective network of social services and welfare programs within the Palestinian community as well as in response to local and regional political developments, namely the rise of political Islam in the Middle East. In 1996, disagreement within the movement concerning participation in the national elections to the Israeli Knesset led to a split. Shaykh Salah became the head of the “Northern Islamic Movement” (so named because its leadership was concentrated mainly in Um al-Fahm and northern Israel), which opposed participation in national elections on ideological grounds and takes part only in elections for the local councils. The “Southern Islamic Movement,” on the other hand, until recently headed by Shaykh Abdallah Nimr Darwish, opted to run in Knesset elections. Widely seen as more flexible and less militant, with greater willingness to accept Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, the Islamic Movement’s southern wing today has two Knesset seats (running as part of the United Arab List). However, the Shaykh Salah faction is the larger and more influential of the two. Despite his refusal to participate in Israeli parliamentary elections, Shaykh Salah is unquestionably a national figure. While mayor of Um al-Fahm (from 1989, when he was elected with 73 percent of the vote, until his resignation in mid-2001), he served as vice chairperson of the National Committee of Arab Mayors. He continues to be a prominent member of the High Follow-Up Committee for the Arab Citizens in Israel, the most important leadership body of the Palestinian community in Israel. As founder and president of the al-Aqsa Institution for Maintaining the Islamic Sacred Places, he has played an active role in the preservation of Arab religious sites, both Muslim and Christian, in Israel and the occupied territories. He has raised large sums for the repair and restoration of al-Aqsa Mosque and works tirelessly to promote his movement as the true guardian of the Haram al-Sharif. Every year the Northern Islamic Movement organizes a rally called “al-Aqsa Endangered” in Um al-Fahm, which attracts thousands of Palestinian citizens from across Israel. Shaykh Salah, known for his personal modesty and integrity, is adept at synthesizing religion and nationalism, a synthesis particularly evident in the centrality of al-Aqsa mosque as both a religious and national symbol in his activism. The activities of Shaykh Salah and his movement have long been monitored by the Israeli government. The movement’s weekly newspaper Sawt al-Haq wal-Hurriyya (Voice of Truth and Freedom) has been closed several times by administrative order. In September 1998, he was hospitalized after being beaten by police while protesting land confiscations near Um al-Fahm, and on 1 October 2000 he was wounded by a rubber bullet during the demonstrations by Israel’s Palestinian citizens at the start of the second intifada. In this latter connection, Shaykh Salah and two other Palestinian leaders (Azmi Bishara and `Abd al-Malik Dahamsha) received “warning letters” from the Or Commission, the official commission of inquiry established by the Israeli government to look into the October 2000 clashes, during which thirteen unarmed Palestinian citizens had been killed by police fire. The warning letter to Shaykh Salah accused him of “supporting violence as a means to attain the goals of the Arab sector in Israel,” of “denying the legitimacy of the existence of Israel,” and of “portray[ing] the state as an enemy.” The Or Commission reiterated these allegations in its final August 2003 report, which also found that Shaykh Salah had substantially contributed to “provoking tempers and the violent and widespread outburst that took place in the Arab sector at the beginning of October 2000." Nonetheless, the Commission concluded that since Shaykh Salah no longer held public office, having in the meantime resigned as mayor of Um al-Fahm, there was no need to “make a recommendation” regarding him. The commission’s “warning letters” and accusations against the Arab leaders were widely criticized in the Palestinian community as attempts to absolve the Israeli government of responsibility for the October events. In any case, by the time the Or Commission report was issued Shaykh Salah was already in prison and facing trial, having been arrested in May 2003 and charged along with four other members of the Northern Islamic Movement for supporting “terrorism” by raising money for West Bank Islamic charities claimed by Israel to be linked to Hamas and for contacting a “foreign agent” (i.e., Iran). In the course of the trial, which lasted more than a year and a half, the charges were scaled back and the charge of contact with Iran was dropped. In January 2005, Shaykh Salah was sentenced as part of a plea bargain to three and a half years imprisonment (including three years of suspended sentence). He was released in July 2005. Shaykh Salah was interviewed in his office in Um al-Fahm on 28 May 2006 by Jamil Dakwar, a member of the JPS Editorial Committee and former senior attorney with Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, who also wrote this introduction. The interview, conducted in Arabic, was translated by Aiman Haddad.