NAZARETH, Israel - Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told his cabinet last week that the northern branch of the Islamic Movement should be outlawed as a terror organisation, according to a leak published in the Israeli media.
Netanyahu has reportedly already established a ministerial team to examine banning the movement, which is led by Sheikh Raed Salah. Three sources at the cabinet meeting provided confirmation to the Haaretz newspaper.
The planned crackdown coincides with claims by the Israeli security services that the Islamic Movement is cooperating with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic faction that rules Gaza, to help the latter retain influence in East Jerusalem.
“Outlawing the Islamic Movement is intended to send a clear message to all Palestinians, in Israel and the occupied territories, that Israel will not tolerate political Islam,” said Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University.
Israel has intensified its attempts to isolate and weaken Hamas since the Gaza group signed a reconciliation deal in April with Fatah, the party of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu is fearful that the agreement may bolster Palestinian efforts in the international arena towards statehood.
The formal declaration this week of a Hamas-Fatah unity government prompted Netanyahu to warn: “This will not strengthen peace; it will strengthen terrorism.” Ahmad Saadi, a Palestinian political analyst, said moves against the Islamic Movement should also be seen as part of a wider attack on the political representation of Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens, who comprise a fifth of the population.
He noted that Israeli parliament had raised the electoral threshold in March to the point where it was doubtful any Palestinian parties could be elected. “Israel would prefer that there is no Arab leadership of any sort organising the community.”
Al-Aqsa in danger
The Islamic Movement, in particular, has been successful in challenging key Israeli policies at the highly sensitive site of the al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem and among the Bedouin in the Negev region.
Israel has been seeking to strengthen its control over the mosque site, which it refers to as the Temple Mount because it is assumed to have been built over two long-destroyed Jewish temples. Salah has mobilised tens of thousands of Muslim followers in Israel to take an active role there under the campaign slogan “al-Aqsa is in danger”. In recent weeks, following the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks late April, there has been a spate of violent clashes between young Muslims and Israeli security forces at the site.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Movement’s popularity has soared among the Negev’s Bedouin in recent years. Israeli officials have blamed the movement for being behind mass protests last year that scotched controversial legislation to move 40,000 Bedouin off their ancestral lands to make way for Jewish communities. “Judaisation of Jerusalem and the Negev are big issues for the Israeli right,” said Saadi.
Israel not recognised
In the 1990s, the Islamic Movement split into two branches. A southern wing is represented in the Israeli parliament, while the northern branch refuses to recognise Israel and does not participate in national elections.
Although the Islamic Movement has ideological sympathies with Hamas, Salah has publicly disavowed violence.
The movement’s popularity among the Palestinian minority is based largely on its charitable and welfare work, and on an image of Salah as incorruptible and persecuted by Israel.
He has been arrested many times. On several occasions charges have been later withdrawn or convictions secured with evidence provided solely by security officials.
Last month Salah was fined £1,500 for obstructing security officials, after he tried to stop his wife being strip-searched three years ago as the couple returned from a trip to Jordan. Zahi Nujeidat, a spokesman, said the Islamic Movement’s legitimacy derived from its wide support. “We do not need a licence from the government. We will stick to our principles and not be intimidated.”
Comparison with Kach
At last week’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu compared the northern wing of the Islamic Movement to Kach, a Jewish extremist group that was declared a terror organisation in 1994. That was shortly after one of its members, Baruch Goldstein, massacred 28 Muslim worshippers in Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque.
“There was no problem outlawing Kach, so there ought to be no problem doing this in the case of the Islamic Movement,” the Israeli prime minister reportedly told his ministers.
He was backed by the transport minister, Yisrael Katz, who noted that the Muslim Brotherhood had been designated a terror organisation in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. “Only in Israel do they [the Brotherhood] freely incite against the existence of the state. There has to be a stop to that,” he said.
Ofer Zalzberg, an Israeli analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict resolution organisation, said: “Israeli decision-makers are seizing an opportunity to act on long-standing concerns about political Islam. Given events in Egypt, the timing is convenient.” Saadi said the success of anti-Islamic parties in last month’s European elections may also have spurred Netanyahu into action.
Democracy at risk
According to the Israeli media, a ban on the Islamic Movement has been delayed by the justice ministry, which is concerned that the decision might not survive a petition to the Israeli supreme court.
Ghanem dismissed the suggestion that the Islamic Movement could be compared to Kach.
“Kach was a racist organisation with a clear intention to harm Arabs individually and collectively. It is still active and carrying out attacks through its supporters in the settler movement. Kach is a real threat, not the Islamic Movement.”
That assessment was shared in a Haaretz editorial, which feared that a ban would redefine terror in a way that “puts the principles of democracy at risk”. It noted that Netanyahu had refused to classify as terror organisations Jewish extremist groups that in recent years have been attacking Christian and Muslim sites in Israel and the occupied territories.
As a result of the hostile regional climate in the past few years, the Islamic Movement had adopted less radical and confrontational positions than a decade ago, said Ghanem.
“It espouses a political view of what kind of state Israel should be - a position different from, but certainly no more extreme than, that taken by some members of Netanyahu’s government.” Both wanted their own religious-ethnic group to dominate, he said.
Leaks from last week’s cabinet meeting were followed by reports that a Hamas leader, Mahmoud Toameh, had revealed during interrogation that his group was directing money to the Islamic Movement in Israel.
Toameh, who was arrested at an Israeli-controlled crossing between Jordan and the West Bank on 14 April, reportedly said Hamas was paying youths from the Islamic Movement to study at seminaries in the al-Aqsa compound.
According to the Israeli media, the youths were chiefly employed to fight with Israeli police and “harass Jews” - a reference to mounting tensions over an influx of Jewish extremists trying to pray at the compound.
Zalzberg said Israel was worried that religious activism at the al-Aqsa compound of the kind promoted by the Islamic Movement might lead to intensified clashes with Israeli police that could damage relations with Egypt and Jordan.
Both Hamas and the Islamic Movement have been concerned that most Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza are unable to reach the al-Aqsa site because of Israeli movement restrictions, leaving the compound vulnerable to an Israeli takeover. Israeli politicians recently tried to introduce legislation to force Islamic authorities to share control of the site with Israel.
Hamas leaders have been barred from occupied East Jerusalem in recent years too. Following Palestinian national elections in 2006, three legislators from Jerusalem had their residency revoked and were expelled to the West Bank. In their absence, the Islamic Movement has taken an increasingly prominent role in Jerusalem and at al-Aqsa.
Moshe Arens, a former defence minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, wrote this week that Salah’s party was “far more dangerous” than either Hamas or Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shiite group that Israel engaged in a month-long war in 2006. He called it “an enemy within” that was “gradually mobilising the Muslim population in Israel in an anti-Israeli crusade”.
Discussions on outlawing the Islamic Movement took place as the cabinet approved plans to set up a ministerial committee to examine the economic development of Israel’s Palestinian minority. It will be headed by Yaacov Perry, a former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service.
Zalzberg said the committee was intending to create a distinction between loyal and disloyal Arab citizens.
“The government’s strategy is to offer incentives to those who are considered loyal, and limit the rights of groups not seen as acting in accordance with the state’s objectives.”