Combating Israel’s Islamic Movement

If the state carries a stick and no carrots, the Arab-Jewish divide can only deepen.

Sheikh Raed Salah (C), head of the Islamic Movement in northern Israel. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sheikh Raed Salah (C), head of the Islamic Movement in northern Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Democracies do indeed have the right and the duty to defend themselves against those who would use democracy to undermine and destroy them from within, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted following the announcement on Tuesday that the northern branch of the Islamic Movement was to be outlawed.
But democracies also have the obligation to act with prudence and forethought, and the feeling among many is that the move may yet backfire.
Parts of the security establishment were against outlawing the movement, fearing it will lead to further radicalization in the Arab sector, make it more difficult to track and monitor the movement’s supporters and could even make the movement more popular.
In fact, speaking earlier this month before the security cabinet, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yoram Cohen reportedly expressed opposition to the move, saying it would “do more harm than good.”
Experts following the Arab sector have also voiced concerns. University of Haifa’s Sammy Smooha said the ban would cause “friction and resistance” while Northwestern University’s Elie Rekhess, a leading expert on Israel’s Arabs, has said the move would lead to “growing unity within the Arab political elites” pulling together the various ideological streams.
Indeed the ban has been met with outrage across the political spectrum of Israel’s Arab minority with even secular politicians and rivals of the Islamic Movement such as Joint List head Ayman Odeh closing ranks and accusing the government of “anti-democratic political persecution.” A general strike and mass protests have been called.
The Arab public, says Prof. Nohad Ali of the University of Haifa, even those who do not support the Islamic Movement, see the ban as a “fissure in Israel’s democracy.” He also says that the number of Arabs who see Israel as a democracy will decline and as a result we will see a drop in Arab political participation.
While the wisdom of the move can be debated, as can the question of whether it was motivated by political opportunism, and whether it will even clear the hurdle of the High Court, there is no disputing the movement’s inflammatory rhetoric – it’s venomous incitement, its championing of the canard that “al-Aksa is in danger” and its outright hostility to the Zionist project. All the more so when it comes to the movement’s head, Sheikh Raed Salah, who is pending an appeal on an 11-month jail term for incitement.
Political and social desperation can not explain its religious ideology, yet the Islamic Movement emerged and grew on the fertile ground of the longstanding neglect of the Arab sector by the Israeli government. While much has been done to improve the lot of Israel’s Arab citizens, there is still far to go and if the government wishes to relegate the importance of the Islamic Movement it would perhaps do better by continuing and reinforcing that trend.
The Islamic Movement operates clinics, social services, soup kitchens, nursery schools, academic programs and even a soccer league. If the state wishes to compete and keep its Arab citizens out of the orbit of the Islamic Movement and its like, it should step in and act vigorously to close the economic gaps with the Jewish sector.
If it carries a stick and no carrots, the divide can only deepen.
There are plans to boost the Arab sector that have been in place since the Or Commission in the wake of the riots of October 2000 and if the government were to implement even a fifth of the plans that have been approved since then, that alone would be a game changer, says Rekhess.
The state must clear aside the combustible material that Salah and his ilk would so happily set ablaze. While it is not the swamp that leads people to acts of violence but irrational hatred and incitement – alienation, poverty and a lack of horizons can only make those ideologies more attractive.