Israel's Islamic Movement: Filling the vacuum, aiming for a caliphate

Some in Israel's Islamic Movement have pushed limits of what is allowed.

raed salah 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
raed salah 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It wasn't just sermons and prayers that filled the gender-segregated soccer field in Kafr Kara on Friday night during the annual summit of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Thousands of devotees gathered from around the country to commemorate Muhammad's journey to "the farthest mosque" and his ascension to the heavens on a winged steed, but politics also hung heavily in the air. Children waved green Islamic flags, young women in hijabs sold large maps of "Palestine before the Nakba," the "catastrophe" of 1948, and sheikhs and politicians spoke of the need to support their Palestinian brothers in the territories, defend the Aksa Mosque and fight for equal rights as Arab citizens of Israel. In a passionate speech, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, the founder of Israel's Islamic Movement, said Palestinians in the territories "have the right" to choose for themselves via elections between the path of "resistance," represented by Hamas, and that of "negotiations," represented by Fatah. "The solution to the [Hamas-Fatah] split is to have elections now, and the people will decide whether to elect Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President and Fatah Chairman Mahmoud Abbas] or Hamas," he told The Jerusalem Post afterward. "They should be responsible for their own decisions." In addition to political activism, both the southern and the more radical northern branch of the Islamic Movement are working hard in the social welfare sphere to occupy every vacuum that the government has failed to fill. "This is the way they work, from [providing] medical services to religious services to even soccer teams," said Prof. Yitzhak Reiter from the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "If the government doesn't give enough money for sports activities or sports facilities, they will construct them by donations and provide the services. By so doing, they will attract particularly the poor - those that don't have enough money to pay." In Umm el-Fahm, the northern branch of the Islamic Movement is helping to build the city's first hospital - a mammoth five-story structure - to serve the surrounding Wadi Ara area. At present, the nearest hospitals for Umm el-Fahm's residents - numbering about 45,000 people - are about 25 minutes away in Afula or Hadera. "If the government doesn't build a hospital here, there is a vacuum," said Yousef Jabareen, an Umm el-Fahm resident and director of the Nazareth-based Dirasat: The Arab Center for Law and Policy. "This allows the Islamic Movement to come here and build hospitals, take the credit, provide the service and connect to the people." The Islamic Movement also runs a 24-hour medical clinic that offers ambulance, urgent care and emergency services and is helping to build a new shopping center. In 1996, the Islamic Movement in Israel split into two factions, the southern branch headed by Darwish of Kafr Kassem, and the more radical northern branch, led by Sheikh Raed Salah of Umm el-Fahm. The northern faction tends not to recognize the state as a Jewish one and opposes voting or running for Knesset elections for ideological reasons but participates in local elections, Reiter said. The southern faction, which includes MK Ibrahim Sarsour (United Arab List-Ta'al), participates in both national and local politics to help achieve its aims. Since 1988, the northern branch has dominated the Umm el-Fahm city council. Zaki Igbaria, the deputy mayor of Umm el-Fahm, believes it is because of the programs and services it has provided, ranging from drug rehabilitation to raising money for underpaid teachers. "The Islamic Movement gathered money here to pay for teachers and to clean the streets, and people started trusting them," Igbaria said recently from his office in Umm el-Fahm. "The main goal of the Islamic Movement is to bring people to the best situation here, in education, in ethics...." Despite the high volume of activity in some areas, Reiter believes that support for the movement - which he estimates at around 20 percent among Muslims - has not changed significantly in the last decade. One reason, Reiter said, was because of political competition. There are other strong Arab political parties, such as the Balad Party, formerly led by then-MK Azmi Bishara, "which are not less moderate," and "they are struggling in the same political field as the Islamic Movement." In addition, while Israel has a unique democratic system that gives ethnic preference to Jews in certain laws and institutions, Arabs in Israel enjoy better welfare services, a strong economy and more political and other freedoms than Arabs in Arab countries such Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was a powerful player, he said. "They still know their situation is better than elsewhere in the Arab world," Reiter said. But over the years, some in the northern branch have pushed the limits of what is legally allowed - for example by donating money to families of Palestinian suicide bombers or attackers - until such acts were outlawed by the state. "Where the Israeli government is neglecting or failing to set lines and limits, they go in and do whatever they can in support of their ideology until someone wakes up and says, 'We have to show them the limits of laws,'" Reiter said. But Igbaria insists they are realistic and that despite their ultimate goal of having a Caliphate, or a united Islamic state that would include Israel, will continue to pursue only legal and peaceful means. "It is not a secret. We believe that the Islamic state will be the best solution for the world, but actually we live here and we are working according to the laws of the state," he said.