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Israel’s decision to ban the Islamic Movement may just be the tip of the iceberg

Israel’s decision to ban the Islamic Movement, led by Shaikh Raed Salah, has opened a new door to confrontation. It also sheds light once again on the reality of their turbulent relationship over the past few years after voices from within the government, parliament and security services have called for incitement against the group. From the nature of this relationship it may be possible to predict Israel’s behaviour against the movement and its prominent figures.

List of accusations

There are many important reasons for the new and rapid Israeli developments with regards to the Islamic Movement, most notably its role in warning Palestinians and Muslims about Israel’s efforts to divide Al-Aqsa Mosque, leading the groups of worshippers inside in Al-Aqsa and confronting the Jewish settlers who insist on storming the mosque on a frequent basis.

There is solid support for the Islamic Movement in the Triangle (a concentration of Arab towns adjacent to the 1949 Armistice — “the Green” — Line) and Galilee. As such, Israel fears the Palestinians’ desire for cultural separation and for the area to become a source of unrest, or forming the core of help for the Palestinian resistance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel does not underestimate the charitable and social efforts of the Islamic Movement in supporting and sponsoring orphans, martyrs’ children and poor families in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It relies on the donations it receives from the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to do this. Although the movement carries out its activities in a legal and open manner, they have been the source of the accusations against it and the reason behind the closure of its institutions and the arrest of its members; the Israelis allege that such money is going to resistance groups in one way or another.

It seems that what Israel is not voicing is its fear of the continued reinforcement of national feelings and commitment to the Palestinian cause amongst Palestinians in the occupied territories, by means of actions such as linking the children of martyrs to wealthy Palestinian sponsors living inside Israel (known by Palestinians as the “territories occupied in 1948”). This sparked a clear conflict amongst Israeli security agencies, some of which support the ban while others oppose it. There are joint fears between the two sides over the Islamic Movement leadership’s attempt to continue working within the constraints of the law, even after it has been outlawed. This is because it does not want to give up the strength that it has gained over the years, and it will continue to participate in the game under other names and disguises.

Israel’s decision to ban the Islamic Movement at this time has put the state in a dilemma of the kind faced by Arab governments in the past in their dealings with Islamic groups. Outlawing or banning the movement is the easier option; one of the results of choosing this path is the possibility that some of its members will go underground with their work, which happened in the Arab countries. This would put Israel in an unbearable position, and it has still not eliminated the “annoying intifada nightmare”, so it does not want to open any more cans of worms.

One contribution to Israel’s increased hostility towards the Islamic Movement could be its efforts to “Islamise” the Occupied Palestinian Territories and thwart Israel’s Judaisation projects, especially in Jerusalem. It may also be related to the increasing number of Palestinian-Israeli citizens whose religious commitment is growing thanks to the activities of the group.

The Israeli army’s Manpower Directorate accuse the Islamic Movement of being behind the campaigns to urge Bedouin youth not to volunteer for service. An average of 3,600 recruits a year in the early 1980s had dropped to 390 by 2006.

Leading the masses

The Israeli establishment does not hide the fact that it has a personal vendetta against the Islamic Movement’s leader, Shaikh Raed Salah. The man possesses many leadership qualities such as willpower, patience and insistence on achieving a goal with bold words and principled stands. His most important distinguishing characteristic, though, is his ability to transform Islamic moral values into political activities; his red lines do not budge, his constants remain firm and his positions do not change. He was able to turn the phrase, “Al-Aqsa is in danger” into an international slogan that embarrasses the Israeli administration. He has remained firm in his positions, even in the courtroom and after his movement was banned.

Raed Salah was imprisoned by Israel early on in his political life on charges of affiliation with a banned organisation in 1981. After he was released, he was put under house arrest, during which he was prohibited from leaving his home city of Umm Al-Fahm, prohibited from leaving his house at night and required to register once or twice a day at the local police station.

The discovery of the tunnel under Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1996, which was first revealed by Shaikh Raed, was a turning point in his life. It reinforced his fears of Israeli intentions to damage the mosque and the need to intensify efforts to protect it. This pushed him to launch projects to revive the love of Al-Aqsa Mosque amongst Muslims and protection for the sacred site. In 1998, after what was known as the Rouha incident during which the Israeli police raided Umm Al-Fahm and injured 600 citizens, Salah announced what he called the “self-reliant community” initiative, which aimed to achieve Palestinian self-development.

The campaign intensified until 2003 when Shaikh Raed was arrested again. He was released two years later and accused of transferring funds to Hamas, contact with “hostile parties” and supporting “terrorism”. While in prison, the shaikh expressed his conviction that his arrest for the third time was a disgrace to Israel and clear proof that it was politicising its legal system in an attempt to control the type of decisions made in special security cases.

The Israeli authorities also deliberately harassed and placed restrictions on Shaikh Raed for months and years on end. The internal security agency, Shin Bet, announced that he may be put on trial for having relations with organisations hostile to Israel, both inside and outside the country. The Israeli authorities believe that Hamas is a sister organisation of the Islamic Movement within Israel.

He was also subjected to an assassination attempt at the hands of the Israeli occupation forces during the 2000 Al-Aqsa Intifada, when he was shot in the face. The ministry of the interior issued an order in 2002 prohibiting him from travelling outside the country based on what it considered to be intelligence information. The Supreme Court rejected his appeal against the decision.

The consequences of the ban

The incitement against the Islamic Movement in general and Shaikh Raed Salah in particular grew after Al-Aqsa Intifada, and the security forces have always tried to eliminate and hinder his work on charity projects by cutting off his contact with the Arab and Muslim worlds. The former Defence Minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, said that the shaikh is a threat to Israel’s security.

Before being prohibited by Israel, Jordan had forbidden him from entering the country six times. The most recent occasion was when he was prohibited from travelling via Jordan to Saudi Arabia to perform the Lesser Pilgrimage of Umrah.

The Israeli authorities and their security forces have escalated their actions against Shaikh Raed, questioning him many times about basic religious matters, such as the dawn prayer, the pillars of Islam and other matters related to the nature of Islamic belief and doctrine.

Perhaps what contributed the most to Shaikh Raed being targeted by Israel is his boycott of Knesset elections and his public call for non-participation; this is a long-held position. The series of articles he published under the heading, “The elections and us”, are an example of his firm position on voting in Israel. They provide a careful and in-depth study, as well as the political vision of the Islamic Movement, regarding Israeli parliamentary work. He believes that participation aims to, “Exhaust our strength, waste our lives and drown our aspirations, as we spend all of our energy in an imaginary battle that will achieve nothing. The experience that lasted over 50 years in the Knesset has proven that the result of this work is almost nothing, as the Knesset is always in a fixed position to thwart all efforts of its Arab members.”

The harassment and limitations imposed on him have prevented him from giving lectures to Arab students at Israeli universities regarding purely religious matters that have nothing to do with politics. Indeed, university administrators regard his very presence on campus to be a challenge to the relations between Arab and Jewish students.

Limited options

All of the above might push any objective observer to conclude that what is actually going on is Israel’s active search for fabricated charges with which to prosecute — and thus persecute — Shaikh Raed Salah; the state wants to limit his activities and derail his mission, political career and position against its actions in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa. This was highlighted after his sentencing to prison just two days before the announcement of the ban on the Islamic Movement.

In the face that all that has happened, Israel only has two options left. It can either suppress the Islamic Movement and its activities or it can ban and outlaw the movement completely by shutting down its institutions. Both of these options will harm Israel on many levels, both domestically and externally, and will reinforce the role of the Islamic Movement, not only in the territories occupied in 1967, but also within Israel itself.

The prevalent belief in Israel is that the measures expected to be taken following the decision to ban the Islamic Movement are prohibiting its members from giving Friday sermons in mosques in Israel; banning its leaders from entering the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; prohibiting the leadership from leaving Israel; examining the sources of the movement’s funding; monitoring the funds that enter the Palestinian areas; prohibiting any Islamic festivals or large gatherings; and shutting down the educational institutions affiliated with the group.

The Islamic Movement is facing many serious problems at the hands of the Israeli authorities because its activities have been banned, including those of more than 20 public service institutions. They may continue to act within the margins available to them to reinforce their Islamic and national convictions, but Israel has taken action within the limits of its internal budget and strategic visions, and taken advantage of the full range of the law to persecute the movement. It has gathered intelligence to support its claims, which confirms that it has an iron grip on the group; it has moved from statements against the movement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to direct action.

In the end, it seems that the clash between the Islamic Movement and its “self-reliance” project on one hand, and Israel and its “elimination” policies on the other, is inevitable. However, in light of the contrasting positions and perspectives regarding the movement within the Israeli security agencies, it seems that the state will keep its grip on it and is likely to continue to do so as the right-wing continues to rise in Israel. The relationship will remain within such a context, and the scenario is likely to get bleaker for the movement and its members. The decision to ban it may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 23 November 2015.

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

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