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Sheikh Raed Salah and the rise of the Islamic Movement in Israel

January 25, 2014 at 12:20 am

If we want to know why the British government decided to arrest Sheikh Raed Salah, we need to look at his pivotal role in the Islamic Movement inside Israel (“the 1948-occupied Palestinian territories”), which is a cause for great concern for the Israeli authorities and security services in the Zionist state. This stems from the rise and growing effectiveness of the Palestinian Islamic Movement inside Israel and the exceptional respect for Sheikh Raed Salah amongst the people.

From this angle, it becomes clear that the arrest of Sheikh Salah in London did not come out of thin air. It was part of the well-known incitement against him by Israel whose propagandists present the Sheikh as an “Islamist extremist” who threatens the national security of each country he visits.

The Islamic movement inside the part of Palestine occupied in 1948 has evolved under Israeli surveillance, monitoring its activities and interfering to undermine its operations amongst Palestinians (the so-called “Arab-Israelis”). As a result, Sheikh Raed Salah has been arrested on a number of occasions. The Islamic Movement is viewed with great suspicion by Israel’s security services, who regard it “on the lines of the Hamas movement” throughout the territories occupied in 1967.

Israel’s panic at the growth of the Islamic Movement and the emergence of leaders such as Sheikh Raed Salah, springs from a political and security vision which thought that the official “Israelisation” policy had succeeded in erasing the national and Islamic identity of the Palestinians who make up 20% of Israel’s population.

Organised political Islam, in the shape of the Islamic Movement, developed in Israel in the early 1970s. This followed the Six-Day War of 1967 when the Israelis occupied Gaza and the West Bank, which allowed Palestinians from Israel to travel for study in Islamic colleges in cities such as Hebron and Nablus. Sheikh Raed Salah graduated from the Faculty of Shari’ah in the former, while Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish is a product of a similar institution in the latter. The nucleus of the Movement was formed in 1972 in the village of Kafr Qasim in the Palestinian midlands by Sheikh Darwish. He is credited as the first leader of the Islamic Movement inside Israel.

As the Movement spread its wings, groups sprung up in other places in the “Triangle” such as Kafr Bera, Jaljuliya and Teibet Al-Muthalath, before developing in the Al-Goun area, in the city of Umm El-Fahm, West Baqa and Jet. Organised programmes reached a peak with the first Land Day events on 30th March 1976, in Galilee; dozens of martyrs were killed by the security forces as the programme became a turning point in organised political action by the Palestinians inside Israel. The struggle led by the Islamic Movement against the racist policies of the Zionist state coincided with an Islamic awakening across the Arab and Muslim world.

In 1977, the first Islamic conference was held in the land of Palestine occupied in 1948, during which it was decided to demand the release of Islamic Waqf (religious endowment) property and the right of the Muslim community to manage its own affairs by the appointment of judges in Shari’ah courts. As left-wing influence waned in Palestinian circles, the Islamic Movement continued to spread across the south in the Negev Desert and north into Galilee.

The first Palestinian uprising (intifada) in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip erupted at the end of 1987, forming a new focus for the national Palestinian movements, including the stream of political Islam inside Israel. The rise in Islamic-motivated resistance to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip saw the emergence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The Islamic Movement in Israel supported the steadfastness of the Palestinian people during the First Intifada and it joined the national Palestinian struggle in the Second Intifada which broke out on 28th September 2000. In Galilee, thirteen young Palestinians were killed in clashes with the Israeli security forces, raising the level of awareness among “Arab-Israelis” and giving a massive boost to political action by the Movement.

A constitution for the Islamic Movement was developed by, among others, Sheikh Abdullah Darwish, Sheikh Raed Salah and Kamal Khatib. A Shura Council of the Islamic Movement in the Palestinian territories was elected, with twenty-seven members. In the run-up to the 1996 Knesset (Israeli parliament) elections, Sheikh Darwish talked about the need to contribute to the Palestinian struggle by the peaceful means available to the Palestinians in Israel in order to avoid the repression and brutality of the occupation. He proposed the establishment of what he called “the moderate mainstream of the Islamic Movement” and began to look at participation in the elections. A conference attended by the leadership of the Islamic Movement in Israel decided to vote on the issue of standing for places in the Knesset.

The result of the vote was a narrow margin in favour of participating in the parliamentary elections within a consolidated list, even though the views of scholars differed; some called for taking part, others called for a boycott of the process.

Due to their belief that the implications were far greater than the narrow vote suggested, Sheikh Raed Salah and three other members of the Shura Council announced their separation from the Islamic Movement headed by Sheikh Darwish in opposition to the decision to take part in Israeli elections.

The pages of the Movement’s newspaper, “Voice of truth and freedom”, were filled with announcements declaring a “correction revolution”, through which Sheikh Salah’s group took control of all relief, journalistic and scientific associations and financial institutions of the original Islamic Movement. The “Al-Aqsa Association for the Care of Awqaf and Holy Sites”, headed by Sheikh Kamel Rayan, was the only community association to side with Sheikh Darwish.

Sheikh Salah, meanwhile, founded “Al-Aqsa Foundation” in 2001, an institution that continues to play a major role in the protection of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Thus, since 1996, the Islamic Movement in Israel has had two main branches: the southern wing represented by Sheikh Abdullah Darwish, which is a pragmatic stream that took the democratic path in the peaceful struggle; and the northern wing led by Sheikh Raed Salah. The latter is the more effective of the two, with presence and influence among the people; it is based in Umm El-Fahm.

Sheikh Salah enjoys great popularity not only among the Palestinians in Israel but also outside the country because of his strong action to protect Muslim holy places in the Old City of Jerusalem and Waqf properties, mosques and Muslim cemeteries across Israel, which are under frequent attack by the authorities. The northern wing of the Islamic Movement has further cemented Sheikh Salah’s popularity by the establishment of a number of social welfare institutions, such as the aforementioned Al-Aqsa Foundation to look after holy places, especially Al-Aqsa Mosque; Iqra’ (Read) Society to help university students; Sanad (Support) Society to care for mothers and children; Hera Foundation caring for the young and old in Palestinian communities; Negev Foundation to help desert communities; Akka Foundation, to help the people of Acre and its surrounding villages and similar foundations for other towns and villages; Al-Fajr (The Dawn) Foundation for Islamic literature and poetry; and Al-Balagh Society for Muslim media. The College of Da’wah and Islamic Sciences, also founded by the northern wing of the Islamic Movement is now represented at the Association of Islamic Universities and the Federation of Arab Universities.

All of these organisations and projects fall under what Sheikh Salah calls “building an integrated self-sufficient society” free from the risk of pressure from the Israeli establishment. Funding has come from the revival of the Islamic Waqf concept and encouraging people to leave legacies in their wills so that nobody has to apply to the Israeli state for core finance.

The British government’s willingness to arrest Sheikh Raed Salah following an intense right-wing Zionist media campaign against him, thus preventing him from fulfilling his speaking engagements, confirms the importance of the Islamic Movement inside Israel and the Sheikh’s leading role as a symbol of the Palestinian national cause. His work is unacceptable to the Zionist state and its sympathisers around the world, and they will stop at nothing, including the manipulation of Britain’s government, to prevent him from exposing the racism and injustice of Israeli policies in his intended talks to politicians and academics.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.