Leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel challenges ban from the UK

By: Dr. Tilde Rosmer, University of Oslo.

On 29 June Shaykh Raed Salah, the head of one of the branches of the Islamic Movement in Israel, and former mayor of Umm al-Fahm (one of the largest Arab cities in Israel), was arrested in London. He had been able to enter the UK even though a ban against him was issued before he arrived, due to mistakes made by the British immigration authorities. Salah himself was not made aware of the ban before his arrest. The reason provided by the Home Secretary for the ban is that Salah’s presence in the UK is not ‘conducive the public good’ and could endanger national security.  This conclusion appears to be based on anti-Semitic statements Salah is alleged to have made in a poem in 2003 and on two different occasions in 2007 and 2009. Salah denies these charges and claims that the various statements are either mistranslated from Arabic; taken out of context; or that he never said them. Salah is currently on bail in London while his case, which was heard in September, is being considered by the judges. It seems curious that the UK government is banning a minority leader that is, although controversial, legal in Israel. Who is this religious leader and what and who does he represent?

This case has brought the very existence of the Islamic Movement in Israel, and to a degree the predicament of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, to what might be described as belated British, and perhaps, international media attention. ‘Belated’ because this Movement was established in the early 1980s and has since functioned as a legally registered organization that works within the framework of Israeli law and society. The Islamic Movement is the largest social-political-religious organisation representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, a community constituting nearly 20 percent of the Israeli population. It was established by Muslim clergy holding Israeli citizenship who were educated at religious institutions in the West Bank after Israel occupied the area, along with other Arab territory, following the 1967 War. Salah was one of these men. The goals of the Movement are described by its leaders as ‘triangular’. They are three-fold: to protect the land, people and religious sites of the Palestinian Muslim community.

Whereas Salah is a controversial leader from a Jewish Israeli point of view and is often described as a ‘dangerous’, ‘anti-Israeli’, ‘radical’ and ‘militant’ in the Hebrew media, from a Palestinian point of view, Salah is an important spokesperson for Palestinians inside Israel. All the more so in the present and increasingly tense atmosphere for Palestinian citizens who fear threats of population exchange, as advocated by the current Israel Foreign Minister and chairperson of the right-wing party Israel Beitenu (Israel Our Home) Avigdor Lieberman; house demolitions of Palestinian homes especially in the Negev/Naqab; and curbing of their rights in recent proposed legislation which Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel,  describes as ‘new discriminatory laws.’ In addition to addressing these issues, Salah is known especially for his activism against the occupation and Israeli settlement activity in East Jerusalem and in particular the al-Aqsa mosque, as well as for his political solidarity with Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory, as evidenced by his participation in the Mavi Marmara in the flotilla to Gaza in May 2010.

Salah’s activism for al-Aqsa and his regular presence in Jerusalem has earned him the informal title ‘Shaykh of al-Aqsa’ or the ‘Palestinian Mayor of Jerusalem’. Among Palestinians, he enjoys a public image as a leader who is present on the ground, fighting for Palestinian control of al-Aqsa mosque and partaking in demonstrations against Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes and the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes, which are often subsequently misappropriated by Israeli settlers. While attending these demonstrations, Salah often gives media interviews and thus augments his public image both among his supporters and among the general Jewish Israeli population. Adding to his credentials as either a ‘resistance leader’ or dangerous ‘radical’ is the fact that Salah has been arrested and detained when participating in demonstrations against excavations undertaken by Israeli authorities near the al-Aqsa. On one such occasion, he was reported to have waved the Syrian and PLO flags, something his lawyer refutes.  The Israeli courts have, at different times, ordered him to remain outside of the Old City in Jerusalem (where the al-Aqsa mosque is located) and he has been prohibited from appearing in Jerusalem in the company of more than eight people. Salah was also accused and found guilty of spitting at a police officer during a demonstration, for which he served five months in prison in 2010.

Salah had been imprisoned previously, in 2003 when he was accused of supporting ‘terrorism’ by funding Hamas, and also of having links with Iran. The latter charge was dropped and the former ‘scaled back’ and in the end Salah entered a plea bargain which resulted in three and a half years’ imprisonment. In my interview (2008) Salah claims not to know the real reason for the arrest and upholds that all the activities of the Islamic Movement are open, transparent and within the limits of the Israeli law. He was in prison during the year and a half long trial and was released in July 2005. I observed the celebrations of his release at the large football stadium in Umm al-Fahm where tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel from all over the country gathered to welcome the leader.

It is fair to say that, while secular Arab and Arab Christian leaders do not share several of the principal political viewpoints of Ra’ed Salah, such as the mixture of religion and politics, he is nonetheless widely regarded as a respected leader of the Palestinian community in Israel by Muslim and non-Muslim Palestinians alike. This is illustrated by the rapid public denunciations of his ban and imprisonment in the UK by secular politicians such as Member of Knesset for the National Democratic Assembly, Haneen Zoabi, who wrote a letter in the Guardian arguing that by arresting Salah ‘the UK authorities support the persecution of Arab citizens of Israel’; and Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi, who described the arrest as ’baffling and undemocratic behavior by the British authorities’.

In the UK, tabloid newspapers have described Salah as a ‘vile banned militant extremist’, while the Guardian questions why the UK government does not tolerate his presence even though he is tolerated in Israel. According to Salah’s lawyers, the case against him is weak and they expect him to be cleared, a view that is backed up by the fact that senior official in the UK Border Agency were against the ban because of the weak evidence. According to my sources in the Movement, Salah himself considers the ban against him as ‘an Israeli trial on UK soil’ with the aim to delegitimize his role. According to this source, he chose to stay in the UK and contest the ban because he considers this not to be aimed only at him personally, but fears that this approach will be used against other leaders and activities, of all religious and other affiliations, fighting for Palestine in the future. Thus, by challenging the reasons for the ban against him, he hopes to defend all future individuals facing similar charges and to ‘break out of the circle of fear’ and persecuting facing Palestinian citizens at home and now also abroad.