Umm el-Fahm – the heartland of the Islamic Movement’s Northern Branch – was on the verge of full scale rioting in the hours after the Gaza flotilla incident.

False rumors saying that its head, Sheikh Raed Salah, had died aboard the Mavi Marmara led dozens of masked youths to hurl stones at border policemen in Umm El-Fahm on May 31.

“If it turns out Sheikh Salah is injured, there will be big problems here and across the Arab areas,” said Ibrahim Mahajane, a young resident of the town, as he looked at the disturbances unfolding. “Salah is our leader, not just here, but for all the Arabs in Israel.”

Salah later returned to a hero’s welcome in the Galilee town, and delivered a characteristically fiery speech in which he predicted that “Zionism would end in Turkey.”

Founded in 1971 by Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, the Islamic Movement has become a dominant force within the Arab community, pushing aside secular Arab nationalist movements and promoting Islamist doctrines.

In 1996, the movement split into two factions over the question of whether to participate in the general elections. The result was the creation of a more moderate Southern Branch, which is represented by Arab Knesset members. The Northern Branch, under Salah’s leadership, refuses to partake in Israeli democracy.

Throughout the 1990s, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) monitored and closed down front organizations run by the Northern Branch, which were disguised as charities and transferred funds to Hamas in the West Bank. Today, the Shin Bet continues to closely watch the Northern Branch and Salah.

Salah, who has served time in prison for transferring funds to Hamas, and who is arrested periodically and banned from Jerusalem for incitement to violence, leads an organization described by security experts as the Muslim Brotherhood in Israel.

“The Islamic Movement is a faction of the regional Muslim Brotherhood organization. It is therefore the sister movement of Hamas,” said Ely Karmon, a senior terrorism expert at the Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center.

“It operates like Hamas did before 1987, before the first intifada broke out and Hamas made a strategic decision to switch to terrorism.”

The Islamic Movement’s current goals are to indoctrinate Israeli Arabs with Islamist ideology (an effort the Movement calls da’wa) and to confront Israel on the rhetorical battlefield.

Salah, an expert media manipulator, will rarely allow more than a few weeks to go by before ensuring that his name or that of his movement are in the headlines. Last week, a delegation of the Islamic Movement headed by deputy leader Sheikh Kamal Hatib visited injured IHH members in a Turkish hospital. The visit followed repeated calls by Salah for more flotillas to be sent to Gaza and vows that he would board future ships. Earlier this month, far-left activist Tali Fahima, who served time in prison for passing on illegal information to Fatah Aksa Martyrs Brigade commander Zakaria Zubeidi, converted to Islam in Umm el-Fahm after being contacted by the Islamic Movement’s Sheikh Yussuf Elbaz.

“THE ISLAMIC Movement’s da’wa system and its principles are completely identical to that of Hamas, and derive from the Muslim Brotherhood,” Reuven Paz, director of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements at the Gloria Center, based at the IDC, said.

At the same time, he added, the Northern Branch does not encourage acts of terrorism “and attempts to operate as much as it can within the framework of the law. In certain actions, it stretches the limits and violates the law, but only within the context of demonstrations and similar activities. Even then, these are mainly the personal acts of... Sheikh Salah.”

The Islamic Movement cannot be described as preparing a generation of jihadis, but can be said to be instilling attitudes within Israeli Arabs that lead them to oppose Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, said Paz.

But while the movement has not become a full-fledged terrorist organization, it has played a key role in encouraging violence, and was behind the events that led up to the outbreak of the second intifada, Karmon argued.

“In the 1990s, the Islamic Movement created an enormous underground mosque on the Temple Mount [in Solomon’s Stables], while constantly claiming that Israel was seeking to destroy the Aksa Mosque. This is why the second intifada is called the Aksa intifada,” Karmon pointed out. The Islamic Movement incited Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to violence, he said.

Within Israel, one of the results of such incitement was the October 2000 clashes in the Wadi Ara region between Israeli Arabs and police, in which 13 protesters were shot dead. “At that time, the government and police did not know how to deal with the movement,” Karmon said.

Similarly, Salah played an important role in the flotilla clashes, Karmon added. “He briefed Turkish IHH members, who later initiated violent action against IDF soldiers. He systematically confronts security personnel and the political authorities.

Salah is a saboteur who seeks the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. His incitement is very severe, and his movement is very dangerous.”

Paz said the Northern Branch did “endanger Israel’s security to a certain degree,” but added that its chances of recruiting the majority of Israeli Arabs to the cause anti-Israel political action “are quite low.”

“Most of its subversive efforts have in recent years been directed toward Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. But there too, it does not form a real threat.

The fact that the Northern Branch boycotts the elections to the Knesset as a matter of principle also lowers the threat that it could increase its influence,” Paz continued.

Israel has so far refrained from outlawing the organization. “At this stage in its activities, I do not see a need to outlaw the Northern Branch,” Paz said. “I assume that, ahead of the next elections, right-wing circles will urge such action... [but] if the nature of the branch’s activities does not change beyond what they are today, I assume that the High Court would reject such an initiative.”

For now, the authorities are attempting to keep Salah and his organization under close watch, without falling into the publicity stunt traps he appears to be setting for the state. Police and Shin Bet officials regularly meet to discuss the Islamic Movement’s activities, and have in the past equated the Northern Branch’s activities with actions by Hamas.

Karmon, on the other hand, believes that the time has come to outlaw the Northern Branch. “In Spain, a democratic state, ETA and all of its front groups have been outlawed. Even ETA activists who protested outside Spanish prisons against the incarceration of ETA members were sent to prison. I see no reason why the same thing can’t happen here,” he said.

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