Israel's apparently endless efforts to silence Sheikh Raed Salah have all been meant to pave the way for the controversial peace plan known as the "deal of the century" to go through with no opposition within Israel, the iconic Palestinian community leader's lawyer has claimed.
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Khaled Zabarqa said that Israel has been planning for the past two years to ban any appearance by Sheikh Salah due to his ability to mobilise the Palestinians to reject any Israeli plan intending to terminate Palestinian rights in Jerusalem.
Last week, US President Donald Trump announced his "peace plan" to end the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The so-called "deal of the century" refers to Jerusalem as "Israel's undivided capital" and recognises Israeli sovereignty over large parts of the occupied West Bank.
The plan drew widespread criticism from Palestinians and the Arab world. It was also rejected by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). "All member states [should] not engage with this plan or cooperate with the US administration in implementing it in any form," the OIC declared.
"Israel put Sheikh Salah under house arrest as he represents a symbol for the Palestinian people, mostly those living in Jerusalem," explained Zabarqa. "We, Sheikh Salah's defence team, did not understand at the beginning why the Israelis were giving meaningless and politically motivated verdicts against him. There was a secret agenda behind it, we told ourselves. Lately, we came to understand that banning Sheikh Salah from the media through his house arrest was aimed at silencing the man, to hinder him so that he cannot mobilise people against the US deal."
Salah's lawyer attributed this to the "big political weight, influence and popularity" that his client has among Palestinian citizens of Israel and, indeed, among all of the people of Palestine. "He is a symbol known throughout the Islamic Ummah as a role model for steadfastness and also a figure defending the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque."
In August 2017, the Israeli police arrested Salah at his home in Umm Al-Fahm in northern Israel. He was then convicted on charges of "inciting violence", which Salah denied completely. The following February, the Israeli Central Court imposed six more months of solitary confinement upon the popular Palestinian resistance figure. Exactly a year later, the Supreme Court sentenced Salah to three more months of house arrest, under which he is still restricted; he cannot receive guests, speak in public, communicate via the Internet or talk to media outlets.
"Israel knows Salah's influence very well. That is why the Tel Aviv leadership sought to distance him from the Palestinian political scene in order to help the controversial plan pass without opposition," Zabarqa pointed out. "They will not succeed in this. Sheikh Salah was and still is a symbol of Palestinian steadfastness. All of the Israeli schemes will fail."
The Sheikh's lawyer added that his client has committed no crime warranting such punishment. "All he did was preach to the people during Friday prayers. Only in Israel is this a crime."
Since 2015, Israel has prohibited Salah from traveling outside the country for reasons ostensibly related to "national security". The Islamic Movement in Israel, which Salah founded in 1971, was outlawed by the Israeli authorities in the same year. Ever since, the same authorities have arrested Salah repeatedly and shut down dozens of community organisations, including a number of charities, over their alleged links to his group.
Raed Salah was born in 1958 in Umm Al-Fahm. He studied Islamic Law at Hebron University in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and then served as Mayor of Umm Al-Fahm for three consecutive terms from 1987 to 2001. The veteran activist has led the Islamic Movement's northern branch since 1996.