Domestic Threat: 'Islam is gnawing on the core'

Hebrew University Prof. Raphael Israeli argues Israel has ignored the growing Islamist threat from within.

Raed Salah 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Raed Salah 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sheikh Ra'ed Salah may seem like just another face in the crowd of Israeli Arab provocateurs. But track his rise to prominence, as Raphael Israeli has done, and a different picture emerges - one of a unique force, carefully cultivated, who poses a highly underappreciated threat to the state. "For most of Israel's history, the Arab community was represented by communists, and when communism collapsed, it left a huge vacuum," Israeli explains. "That vacuum has been filled by Salah and his like, in the northern branch of the Islamic Movement." For 20 years, Israeli has watched - and warned - as the main element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shifted from nationalism to Islamism. It was an inconvenient truth that few of the Hebrew University professor's colleagues were willing to accept. "They would ask me, 'Why are you starting trouble with the Muslims? Why not just limit our troubles to the Arabs?'" he tells The Jerusalem Post. "But you have to recognize the reality: Little by little, Islam is gnawing on the core of Palestinian nationalism." One manifestation of this is Salah's penchant for making inflammatory statements regarding the Temple Mount, inciting Muslims to violence with false charges of government plots to undermine the Aksa Mosque. In so doing, Salah changes Jerusalem from a Palestinian political issue that could, conceivably, be solved into a religious issue that demands the attention of even Israeli Muslims. Salah's latest brush with the law is an incitement to violence charge stemming from his sermon in Jerusalem's Wadi Joz neighborhood in February. Salah urged supporters to start a third intifada in order to "save al-Aksa Mosque, free Jerusalem and end the occupation." In his speech he also attacked Jews, saying, "They want to build their temple at a time when our blood is on their clothes, on their doorsteps, in their food and in their drinks," and accusing Jews of "[eating] bread dipped in children's blood." Further complicating things are Salah's repeated efforts, through his public speeches and through the Arabic-language newspaper that has served as his mouthpiece, to frame Jewish-Arab tensions in Israel in the anti-Jewish terms of the Koran. "While the differences between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in Israel are often bridgeable by common language, economic interest and neighborly relations," says Israeli, "the Muslim radicals have injected massive doses of Islamic symbolism into the conflict and given it a religiocultural nature, rendering it virtually insoluble." Since "religiously motivated Muslims are likely to act far more boldly and with more self-sacrifice than politically oriented activists," he explains, this is more than mere semantics. ISRAELI HAS observed Salah closely since the young firebrand was elected mayor of Umm el-Fahm in local elections that proved a resounding victory for the hard-liners within the Islamic Movement. He came away impressed with Salah's genuine man-of-the-people persona, but deeply concerned by the way he was steering the movement away from relative moderation and toward increasing confrontation with the state. "After the Islamists' victory in the elections of 1989, which resulted on the one hand in their growing self-confidence, and on the other in the Israeli government's reluctance to confront them head-on, open declarations of jihad against Israel became routine," Israeli notes. In short order, Salah's supporters in the Galilee instigated riots in Nazareth, in a showdown that was overtly about imposing Muslim dominance over Christians. They also became more brazen in their public statements of disgust for the Jewish state and in their vows to ultimately defeat it. Authorities, fearing a backlash over the impression of religious persecution, have repeatedly caved in before such displays. This has been a mistake, Israeli says, because Salah and his followers "do not hide their intentions. They should be taken seriously by their interlocutors, because when their environment becomes irreconcilable with their ideology, violence is inescapable." Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, Salah and the northern branch of the Islamic Movement have aligned themselves with Hamas. In 2003, he and several of his followers were charged with financing Hamas's terrorist activities; in 2005, facing overwhelming evidence against them, the men signed plea bargains to avoid lengthy prison terms. Israeli, who wrote a book based on his testimony as an expert witness for the prosecution in that trial, still recoils at the thought of that plea bargain. Rather than face prosecution for aiding one of Israel's bitterest enemies, Salah "returned to his village as a victor, with tremendously enhanced prestige amongst the Arabs. That did tremendous damage to us," Israeli says. The government's choice to avoid confronting the burgeoning Islamic movement in Israel, says the Moroccan-born professor, has only served to embolden Salah and his followers. "Salah is admired for being fearless - and I respect him for that," Israeli says. "What I can't understand is how our authorities have shown themselves to be hapless and helpless in his regard." Just two weeks ago, three Lod residents who are members of Salah's Islamic Movement confessed to plotting to kidnap and kill an IDF soldier and trade his remains for Palestinian terrorists being held in Israeli prisons. Their motive, according to the leader of the three, was to "wage jihad against the infidels." Despite Salah's acknowledged involvement in terrorism, and despite encouraging Israeli Muslims to see themselves as murabitun - a sort of garrisoned sleeper agents preparing to fight their heretic neighbors - he still remains a mere nuisance in the minds of the authorities, according to Israeli. "Unfortunately, he is perceived as a marginal figure much more than the danger he is," says Israeli. "But this is only among the Jews. He is not marginal among the Arabs. Even the most secular Arabs in Israel are proud of him." Ironically, Israeli says, the state is more lenient regarding the domestic Islamist threat than it is regarding foreign-based jihadis. "The measures that Israel has been pressuring Western countries to adopt against Hamas, Hizbullah and other Islamist movements - such as closing them down, banning them, confiscating their properties and pursuing them in the courts - it does not apply itself, in spite of long years of subversive activity." That's startling, he concludes, because "the danger posed to Israel's existence is far greater than anything the West has been exposed to."