Leader of Israeli Muslim group’s arrest strengthens him among Arab public

“The more the government goes after him, the more this idolizes him in the eyes of the young people that follow him," says supporter of Raed Salah.

Sheikh Raed Salah  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sheikh Raed Salah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The most memorable image of the arrest and remand Tuesday of Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the banned Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, was of him smiling broadly and waving in the court room.
The sheikh, arrested on suspicion of incitement, has good reason to be pleased. His arrest can only make him more popular and relevant among Israeli Arabs by depicting him as the victim of an establishment and government widely viewed as racist and pursuing policies that harm their standing.
“The more the government goes after him, the more this idolizes him in the eyes of the young people that follow him,” said an activist of the Hadash party component of the Joint List who asked for anonymity.
In an illustration of the huge gulf between Israeli-Jewish and Israeli-Arab societies, Salah’s arrest was applauded by the Right and Left on the Jewish side, including by Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay, while being condemned across the board on the Arab side. The key words invoked by almost all the Arab politicians commenting on the arrest were “political persecution.”
It is a phrase that resonates with a public that increasingly feels its very citizenship status is being called into question among other things by efforts to pass the Nationality Law and last week’s first ever stripping of citizenship by an Israeli court against an Umm el-Fahm resident convicted in a terrorist attack.
According to police, Salah gave a speech at the funeral of two of the three assailants who carried out the deadly Temple Mount attack last month in which he praised their actions and “incited for a war over the Temple Mount.” Salah says he was just drawing on the Koran.
A Balad party statement termed the arrest of Salah, which comes two years after his movement was banned for alleged links to terrorist groups and inciting a wave of violence,” the continuation of the political persecution applied by the Israeli government against basic political streams active in Arab society and a continuation of the policy of criminalizing political work in accordance with the Israeli ceiling and the Zionist consensus.”
Balad may have reason to fear it could be next in line. Housing Minister Yoav Gallant told Israel Radio on Tuesday that there is no “real difference” between Salah and Balad legislators Haneen Zoabi, Jamal Zahalka and imprisoned ex-MK Basel Ghattas. “They should not be allowed to have a platform in the Knesset to harm Israel,” he said.
Salah deftly invoked the phrase “political persecution” during his remand hearing, saying, according to Ynet: “What you are doing is an expression of the continued persecution of our public by the Israeli government. This is political persecution.”
The sense by the Arab public of being persecuted and incited against goes right back to the election of the current government, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Arabs were going to the polling stations “in droves.”
Last year, during the wave of forest fires, Arab citizens were profoundly angered by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan blaming Arabs for starting the blazes. The efforts to pass the Nationality Law also strike a raw nerve with critics saying it harms Arab standing by favoring Jewish over democratic values and demoting the Arabic language from its official status.
The attempted and actual stripping of citizenship and talk of transferring Umm el-Fahm to the Palestinian Authority – without consulting its residents – make many Arabs feel their very citizenship is threatened by the government.
The fact that all of the Joint List MKs came out against Salah’s arrest, including avowed secularists who are his foes on what the character of Arab society should be, is a reflection not of support for Salah but “a way of talking against what the government is doing,” said the Hadash activist.
Adding to the criticism of the arrest is that the judge, Menachem Mizrachi, appeared to question some of the police’s incitement allegations.
According to Wadia Awawdy, who works for Hala Television in Taibe: “It may be that he infringed here and there on the law relating to incitement, but between that and making him the arch demon responsible for the entire dreadful situation that we live in is, to put it mildly, inaccurate.”