By REBECCA ANNA STOIL
Raed Salah, the outspoken leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel's northern branch, called Tuesday on all Israeli Arabs and residents of east Jerusalem to immediately make their way to the Old City and "shield the Aksa Mosque with their bodies."
Salah, who was arrested later on Tuesday, is no stranger to controversy, but his militancy continues to drive a wedge within the decades-old organization, between those who say they believe in working within the political system and those advocating violent methods outside of it.
After cabinet ministers called for his indictment on Tuesday morning, a defiant Salah said he and his supporters "would pay any price to defend the Aksa [Mosque]," Israel Radio reported.
In response to accusations of inciting the Muslim violence in Jerusalem in recent days, Salah said that if forced by the government to choose between imprisonment and defending the mosque "and occupied Jerusalem," he would choose the former without hesitation.
Prof. Yitzhak Reiter, from the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that support for the movement had remained steady among Israeli Muslims at 20 to 25 percent, but that many more supported Salah when it came to the Temple Mount.
"Both [of the Islamic Movement's] factions together represent approximately 20 to 25% of the Muslim population, but that doesn't mean that people who vote for Hadash or even Labor won't agree with Salah when he speaks about Al-Aksa," Reiter said. "And they will evaluate the situation like he does, because they don't trust the government institutions' line about it."
But Reiter also emphasizes that there is a limit to Salah's influence even regarding the Temple Mount.
"In 2007, when Israel was working on the Mughrabi gate entrance, and Salah called on people to defend the mosque, few people actually came - even on the buses that he organized to come to Jerusalem - because they understood that he took one step too far."
In that case, Reiter said, the authorities took important steps to stem the furor by simulcasting live footage of the building project, which helped refute Salah's allegations.
"He works by building castles of conspiracy theories, and this destroyed them," explained Reiter, arguing that in the recent violence, Israel could have taken steps to explain to Israeli Arabs that Salah's conspiracy theories were just that and nothing more.
Salah, whom Reiter described as the force behind the split between the Islamic Movement's two fronts, has continued to function as one of the movement's most recognized leaders for decades. But he was far from the only member who has pushed the boundaries between millennialist political thought advocating the establishment of an Islamist caliphate based in Jerusalem and outright support of terrorism.
The Islamic Movement was established in 1971 and even in its early years was accused of walking a narrow line between political activism and terrorism. The movement was founded by Abdullah Nimar Darwish with the goal of establishing private Islamist welfare services as an alternative to those offered by the Jewish state.
But a parallel organization called The Families of Jihad was also established by Darwish and several other leaders within the movement, and their stated goal was to establish an "Arab Islamist state in Palestine."
Eight years later, the organization's leadership was arrested after attempting to carry out a terrorist attack, and from then on, the movement officially renounced terrorism.
After a surge of support in the early '80s, the movement began to run candidates in municipal elections, and Salah first achieved electoral success in the Wadi Ara city of Umm el-Fahm, which subsequently became an ideological center for the movement.
It was in the early '90s that cracks in the movement's unified front began to emerge, with the northern faction opposing the Oslo Accords and the southern front welcoming them. That division was further strengthened - and the split became official - when in 1996 the southern front decided to team up with MK Ahmed Tibi's Arab Democratic Party to form the United Arab List-Ta'al. Salah, however, advocated boycotting elections, maintaining the faction's complete boycott of all Israeli institutions.
Twice during that decade, the movement's charitable wing was closed after the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) discovered that it was giving money to Hamas members' families.
Salah, together with then-MK Abdul Malik Dahamshe was blasted for his role in inciting the October 2000 Wadi Ara riots, and then - similar to now - Salah incited followers to violence to protect the Temple Mount following then-prime minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the Jerusalem holy site.
Salah continued to incite his followers to violence, frequently using the Aksa Mosque as the emotional focal point of his calls to action. In 2002, the northern branch's newspaper was ordered closed by then (as now) Interior Minister Eli Yishai after it blasted Israel for allowing "the flea rabbis to harm Al-Aksa."
Salah himself was arrested in 2003 for allegedly aiding Hamas, but was released in 2005 following a plea agreement.
He once again courted jail time in 2007 when he called on Muslims to defend the Temple Mount during the Mughrabi Gate project, but returned to lying relatively low in the ensuing two years. But last year, after a series of stone-throwing incidents in northern Israel, the movement returned to the headlines when two Israeli-Arab youths told a reporter for the Yisrael Hayom newspaper that northern front activists had paid them to attack passing vehicles.
Rather than denying the allegations, an unnamed senior member of the movement confirmed the report, and added as explanation: "We want autonomy like the Catalans and Basques in Spain, while all means are valid on the path to this goal."
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.
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