By Yassir Zaatra
On Wednesday 13 January, an Israeli court sentenced Sheikh Raed Salah to nine months in jail with an additional six months suspended for inciting protests and “assaulting a police officer”, to whom Sheikh Salah was ordered to pay 7,500 Shekels in compensation. It is well-known that he is the leader of the Islamic movement in the lands occupied in 1948 – present day Israel – but who is Sheikh Raed Salah?
In the early 1990s, when Sheikh Salah was the mayor of Umm al-Fahm, a town in northern Israel, there was a controversial discussion among the members of the Islamic movement about joining the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament). Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, the then leader of the Islamic movement, supported the idea that Palestinian citizens of Israel (so-called “Israeli Arabs”) should take part in Israeli elections. There are around 1.5 million Palestinians living inside the borders of “the land occupied in 1948”, approximately 20% of the total population. Although Israeli citizens, they have for many years been treated like second-class citizens by the state. During the discussion on electoral participation, Sheikh Salah and his supporters took an opposing view. This led to a split in the Islamic movement, with the overwhelming majority following Sheikh Salah’s position into what is known as “the Northern branch” of the Islamic movement. This stance made the Israeli authorities more hostile than ever to Sheikh Salah.
There is no doubt that the Zionists’ hostility towards the Sheikh stems originally from his custodianship of all the sacred places in the occupied land and Al-Aqsa Mosque in particular, where he has stood against the plans to “Judaise” the site, leading to the destruction of the mosque and the building of a Jewish Temple on its ruins. This plan has broad support in Zionist circles which support in private and public discourse David Ben Gurion’s statement, “There is no meaning to Israel without Jerusalem, and there is no meaning to Jerusalem without the temple”.
Sheikh Salah has for many years held his soul in his hands. He has been acting of his own free will and prison is the least he could expect from the Zionists, an experience he has already gone through with some of his Palestinian brothers, but no difficulties have been able to divert them from the path they have chosen. What Sheikh Salah expects is to be a martyr and everybody knows that he is targeted by Zionist extremists and, perhaps, the Israeli state itself; assassination by someone later described as a “deranged settler”, or “persons unknown” is not beyond the realms of possibility.
It was with a great sense of pride that Sheikh Salah received his latest prison sentence and when he left the court he challenged the Zionists, announcing that he would continue to defend Al-Aqsa, Al-Quds and the whole of Palestine. Prison alone will not stop his efforts for the cause as he leaves behind him men and women who were brought up with a love of their homeland, Palestine, and who will not abandon their historic rights.
One of the aspects of the occupation of Palestine in 1948, and again in 1967, has been the efforts of the Israeli Zionists to obliterate the Palestinian identity of the land. More than 500 Arab towns and villages have been destroyed and wiped off the map by Israel since 1948 in a policy that has been called “ethnic cleansing” by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe. Sheikh Salah has been active in preserving the collective memory of the Palestinians and a comparison of the situation today with that in the 1970s will reveal the great effort made in the face of the official policy of “Israelisation”, which would have been more successful if not for the Islamic movement under his leadership. In addition, Sheikh Salah has stood with dignity in support of the Palestinian resistance movement in the West Bank and Gaza, giving them all possible assistance, which is yet another reason why both he and his movement have been targeted, and why – whether in or out of prison he will remain a thorn in the side of the occupation authorities.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.