Israel’s Islamic Movement: Overcoming obstacles

Despite being outlawed and having its leader, Raed Salah, jailed, the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement remains popular and appears to function much as before.

Leader of the northern Islamic Movement Sheikh Raed Salah gestures after leaving the district court in Jerusalem October 27, 2015. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Leader of the northern Islamic Movement Sheikh Raed Salah gestures after leaving the district court in Jerusalem October 27, 2015.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Just over six months since the government outlawed the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, shutting down 17 affiliated charities and organizations, its leader, Raed Salah, began a nine-month jail sentence this week for incitement – his third stint in an Israeli jail. Yet, despite the steps against the organization, it remains immensely popular in the Arab sector.
As one intellectual associated with the movement told The Jerusalem Post, the ban and the jailing of Salah have become a rallying cry, and the movement’s narrative compares the measures to the banning of Islam and the way of life it dictates.
In the wake of the government’s decision last November to ban the group – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged it with inciting violence and cooperating with Hamas in order to topple the state and replace it with an Islamic caliphate – personalities involved with the Islamic Movement announced a new party in Nazareth last month in what appeared to be a way to circumvent and continue political and charitable activities.
The new entity – the Trust and Reform Party – is not registered with the state and does not intend to run for the Knesset, Israel Radio reported at the time.
The head of the party is Husam Abu Leil, who was the second deputy head of the Islamic Movement’s Northern Branch.
Muhammad Barakei, the leader of the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee and former Hadash chairman, was present at the event in Nazareth and welcomed the new party.
The committee, which coordinates Arab political action, is made up of Arab MKs, municipal leaders and other community figures.
Almost the entire spectrum of Arab leaders has rallied around the Islamic Movement and Salah, the former three-time mayor of the Arab town of Umm el-Fahm.
The group has wide-ranging grassroots support, and many of the poor have benefited from the group’s social welfare network.
Tawfek Mohammad Jabarin, a representative of the Islamic Movement’s media arm based in Umm el-Fahm and the former editor of the northern Islamist Movement publication Sawt al-Haqq wal-Huriyyah (The Voice of Freedom and Justice), which has since been banned, told the Post that “there is no way to make an idea illegal.”
“The sense on the street is that Raed Salah has more support now than before the arrest,” he said.
“Netanyahu always looks for an enemy,” claimed Jabarin, noting that the prime minister has been talking about the Iranian threat since the 1990s.
“Today, he is looking for a new enemy,” he said, referring to the domestic arena.
You can’t outlaw the group’s principles, argued Jabarin, adding that people are not intrinsically connected to the brand or name of the Islamic Movement per se, but to the principles it stands for.
“The way of life – the religion of Islam – can’t be banned,” he stressed.
Asked to comment on the overwhelming support for Salah and the Islamic Movement in Arab society, Jabarin replied that after the ban “all Arab political parties united behind the Islamic Movement.”
Questioned about the new political party, Jabarin claimed there is “no Islamic Movement connection to the new party.”
They are separate entities, and from what he has gathered, the party will not take part in Knesset elections.
Shlomo Daskal, a researcher of Arab media in Israel, told the Post: “The Islamic Movement is not worried about Salah going to jail. It is not a big deal.”
Daskal noted an interesting shift in Salah’s rhetoric over his going to jail, pointing out that over the years he has created a correlation between himself and al-Aksa; however, it has now reached the point “where one might think al-Aksa itself is going to jail, not just Salah.”
Salah has used charges that Israel is endangering al-Aksa Mosque to rally the Arab public in Israel.
“He is taking advantage of the event in order to use even stronger language,” said Daskal, adding that his comments have been relayed and spread in various media outlets in the Arab world.
Asked if the ban on the group has had much of an impact so far, he noted that he is not knowledgeable of all the details on the ground, but it appears the group continues to function much like before the ban.
For example, members and supporters of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement continue to be interviewed in Israeli-Arab media, Daskal noted.
Another interesting point, continued Daskal, is that Salah’s statements have set a framework placing himself against Netanyahu. “And because of this, more moderate Arab leaders have found themselves trapped, since if they don’t support Salah, they will be perceived by the Arab public as siding with Netanyahu.”
Upon going to jail, Salah was quoted by Army Radio as stating, “If they force me to choose between prison and the surrender of Jerusalem and al-Aksa Mosque, then I will go to jail.... I go to jail because of the will of God and not the will of Netanyahu. It is an honor to me.”
Even Arab members of the communist and supposedly secular Hadash party have been fully backing Salah and the Islamic Movement. For example, Barakei has been defending the group.
The banning of the Islamic Movement and its organizations and charity NGOs “is not just a local issue,” the former Hadash MK told the Post after a Tel Aviv press conference in January, which criticized the ban. The crackdown against the Islamic Movement “will eventually target everyone,” Barakei warned.
Daskal went on to argue that “Barakei can’t go against Salah at all, or else he would be seen as supporting Netanyahu.”
“Salah is untouchable,” he said, explaining that since he is honest and not corrupt and supports charities in the sector, he has high popularity.
The researcher of Israeli Arabs recalled that an Arab journalist told him that he is unable to write anything critical of the Islamic Movement leader, since “when the state takes actions against him, there is a need to identify with him.”
Noting that the Islamic Movement had its media outlet shut down, Daskal said: “They don’t even need a newspaper, because they have the social networks.”
Daskal noted that a video of an event from the day before Salah went to jail revealed that there was a representative from Turkey present. The Turkish government, led by the Islamist AK Party, has been supporting Muslim Brotherhood- style groups throughout the region, just like the Islamic Movement.
Asked about the Southern Branch reaction to the crackdown on the northern wing, he said that the Southern Branch has been relatively quiet about it. “It has disappeared,” he said.
“Of course the Southern Branch does not support Israel’s acts against Salah. A southern delegation even visited him before he went to jail,” noted Daskal. “But they still see themselves as a part of the Israeli political system, unlike the Northern Branch.”
The more pragmatic Southern Branch has decided to play the political game and has the UAL party in the Knesset as part of the Joint List.
Across the board in the Arab sector, despite the loss of funding and infrastructure, and the jailing of its leader, the movement remains as strong as ever.
A knowledgeable government source told the Post that the group’s popularity may be high now but predicts that in five years “most Israeli Arabs will recognize and understand the red lines drawn by the state.”
“The ban was long overdue,” added the source.