The Rise and Rise of Shaykh Ra’ed Salah: Israel’s most prominent Islamist wins case against UK Home Secretary

By: Dr Tilde Rosmer, University of Oslo.

In my blog entry in October 2011 I commented on the decision of the UK government to ban entry to Shaykh Ra’ed Salah, the head of the so-called Northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Salah had been invited to the UK by supporters of the Palestinian cause to give a series of talks across the country at a number of different venues, including the House of Commons.

Although an entry ban had been imposed on Salah by the British Home Secretary, Teresa May, a few days before his arrival, due to errors committed by the immigration authorities, he had nevertheless entered the country without hindrance and was not informed of the ban imposed on him prior to his arrest in June 2011.  Rather than consent to deportation, he opted to stay and fight the legality of the Home Secretary’s decision through the British justice system.

The reasoning provided by the Home Secretary for the entry ban was that Salah’s presence in the UK was ‘not conducive the public good’.  This conclusion had reportedly been reached by the Home Secretary on the basis of reports she had received that Salah had made anti-Semitic statements in a poem published in 2003 and on two different occasions in 2007 and 2009. Salah denied the allegations and claimed that the statements attributed to him had either been mistranslated from Arabic; or had been taken out of context; or were never made by him.

In April this year Salah won the appeal against his deportation in the Upper Immigration Tribunal.  The judgment of the Tribunal stated that the detention had been ‘entirely unnecessary’ and that Salah’ s appeal had succeeded ‘on all grounds’. According to the ruling, Home Secretary Teresa May, had ‘acted under a misapprehension as to the facts’ and had been ‘misled’ with regards to the content of the poem authored by Salah. Furthermore, the Tribunal Judge found that the Home Secretary had taken ‘irrelevant factors’ into consideration in deciding to place a ban on Salah.

Back in Israel, Salah received a hero’s welcome – not only from his associates in and supporters of the Islamic Movement, but also from Palestinian community leaders in Israel and Palestinian politicians representing other parties, such as members of Knesset Taleb a-Sanaa (Ta’al/Arab Movement for Renewal) and Jamal Zahalka (Balad/National Democratic Assembly). The public demonstrations of support at Salah’s return, and the declarations of encouragement and support Salah received from Christian and secular Palestinians during his ten-month long struggle against deportation back to Israel indicate that Salah is perceived as an important national representative of Palestinians in Israel beyond the confines of his Islamist group.

However, his decision to stay in Britain in order to fight the Home Secretary’s decision also drew criticism within Islamist circles, particularly from some Islamic Movement members who would have preferred their leader to be at home, taking care of business. During a fieldtrip to Israel I made in February 2012 many of my interviewees in the Islamic Movement described the difficulties that Salah’s absence had caused. A chief complaint was that Salah’s absence had led to a halt in negotiations between the two branches of the Movement which were aimed at achieving reunification for the first time since the Movement split in 1996.

Unlike earlier rounds of negotiations which had been conducted by lower level representatives of the two branches, these recent negotiations which began in 2011 were conducted by the national leaders of each branch. Salah’s prolonged absence therefore brought the negotiations to a standstill. This standstill, moreover, exposed and emphasised one of the main differences between the two branches, namely the different cultures of leadership.

While leaders and activists in the so-called Southern branch pride themselves on the fact that their leaders have changed several times since the Movement split in 1996 in accordance with internal elections held among their supporters, they also criticise the lack of any such change in the leadership of the Northern branch, which has been headed by Salah since 1996. According to my interviewees, from the Southern branch’s point of view, the lack of leadership elections in the Northern branch is one of the main obstacles to the attainment of unity in the Movement.

Commentaries by Jewish Israelis in the Israeli press on Salah’s recent experiences were largely divided along political lines. In the liberal Ha’aretz newspaper, one commentator expressed support for Salah’s freedom of expression (while being critical of his views). By contrast, a commentator in the right-wing Jerusalem Post criticised the state of Israel for being too lenient towards Salah and his Movement and thereby inadvertently assisting his case in Britain. The commentator who expressed the latter view noted that in granting Salah his appeal the British judge had made reference to the freedom of movement and expression Salah enjoys in Israel. By extension, the judge determined that if Salah is not considered a threat to the public good in Israel, it makes little sense that he could be considered a threat to the public good in the UK.

Responses in the British press to Salah’s entry ban and court case were also divided along left-right and Jewish-Muslim fault lines. In the Guardian and the New Statesman, writers supported Salah’s right to freedom of expression and criticised the Home Secretary’s decision to ban him while raising questions about the credibility of the main source of the allegations he faced, namely the Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors anti-Semitism in the UK. As noted in the New Statesman, while the British right-wing press were active in promoting the image of Salah as a ‘vile militant extremist’ and an ‘anti-Semitic preacher of hate’ (Daily Mail) and a ‘hate preacher’ (The Sun), they have been conspicuously more quiet about his victory.

In the Jewish Chronicle, one commentator questioned the character of Salah, taking issue with his supporters’ description of him as the ‘Gandhi of Palestine’ and maintaining that Salah had made remarks amounting to Blood Libel in a speech in 2007, while levelling accusations of other anti-Semitic statements against him. The author also criticised the Tribunal Judge for being inconsiderate to Jewish sensitivities. By contrast, the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) has offered a prominent Muslim British voice in this affair and has presented the case from Salah’s point of view, as well as acting as a host to Salah and his entourage during his months’ long defence and appeal.

Salah himself was not allowed to make any public statements during the case but he did pen an opinion piece in the Guardian recently. In addition to describing the predicament of Palestinians in Israel, he emphasised that Britain not only has a general responsibility to uphold universal values, justice and fairness, but that the state also has a particular duty to the Palestinian people because of its failure to uphold their rights, despite the reference made to such rights in the Balfour declaration of 1917. The declaration states not only that Britain viewed ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’, but also provided the commitment that ‘..nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…’.

The deportation case of Salah demonstrates that even in Britain there is a fine line between criticism of Israel that is tolerated and that which draws accusations of anti-Semitism. It has also thrown into sharp relief the polarisation of British Jewish and Muslim voices in respect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One positive outcome is that it briefly brought the often forgotten predicament of Palestinian citizens of Israel to the attention of the British and international media. It has also certainly raised the international profile of the Islamic Movement of Israel and especially the leader of its Northern branch, Shaykh Ra’ed Salah.

By way of example, a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) commented that, ‘Unsurprisingly, Shaykh Ra’ed Salah – the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, which refuses to engage with the country’s political institutions – has become the highest-profile Arab politician.’ In fact, Salah does engage with the municipal level of political institutions in Israel and he was elected to the position of Mayor of Umm al-Fahm three times (1989, 1993 and 1998). He and his branch do, however, refuse to stand for national parliamentary elections, arguing that to do so would only serve the interests of Israel by allowing the state to present itself as more democratic than it is with regards to its Palestinian citizens.

The ICG is no doubt correct to note that Salah is the highest profile Palestinian politician in Israel today. That said, it is impossible to accurately assess his level of political support, not only because Salah does not currently hold an elected office, but also because his branch of the Movement does not register members. Moreover, Salah’s increasingly high profile and leadership is not without controversy. This is evidenced in the negotiations for the unification of the Islamic Movement in Israel, as described above; among secular and Christian Palestinians; and certainly from the point of view of the Israeli state.

The continuing rise of this Islamist leader among Palestinians in Israel is a noteworthy development considering that politico-communal leadership positions were once the preserve of communist and nationalist leaders. Most Palestinian politicians and civil society representatives in Israel I have interviewed have expressed a deep respect for the Islamic Movement and its leaders, and have emphasised that on what they called ‘external’ or ‘political’ issues, regarding the rights and welfare of Palestinian citizens of Israel, they and the Islamic Movement are in agreement and cooperate. Yet, there are tensions between secular and Christian representatives and the Islamic Movement, especially in relation to conflicting views on the separation of religion and politics. Whereas Christian community representatives typically expressed a desire for such a separation, this clearly goes against the raison d’etre of the Islamic Movement.

In addition, there are internal tensions between the Movement and other members of the Palestinian community in Israel in relation to gender issues, particularly women’s rights and LGBTQ rights; and in respect of the best approach to adopt vis-a-vis the state in the Palestinian community’s struggle for just distribution of governmental funds and equal rights.

As regards this last point, the difference of opinion may be summarized as follows. Most NGOs that work to assist Palestinian citizens in their efforts to obtain equal civil and communal rights in Israel focus on demanding material benefits or political rights from the state. By contrast, the Islamic Movement’s methodology is based on the principle of self-reliance. Thus, the latter approach can be said to undermine the former. Some critics say that self-reliance both relieves the state of its duty to provide increased services and rights to its Palestinian citizens and also exacerbates the isolation of the Palestinian community in Israel.

For its part, the Israeli state and establishment is, perhaps predictably, displeased by the rising star of a home-grown Islamist leader and indeed by the growing support for the Movement as a whole. It seems clear that the Movement has now gained much more power and prestige than the state thought possible when it decided to support and encourage future leaders’ education in West Bank institutions in an effort to undermine the appeal of the (secular) Palestine Liberation Organisation in the 1970s and 1980s.

While the state tolerates the Movement’s presence and allows it to operate as a lawful organisation, Israeli agencies also keep a close eye on the Movement and in particular on Salah.  Salah is no stranger to criminal charges in Israel and currently has four court cases against him pending trial. In addition to representing a political challenge for the state, Salah is also a PR liability. He is among the most outspoken of the leaders of Palestinian citizens of Israel today and he does not shy away from describing the state as racist, denouncing Israel’s occupation of Arab lands or calling for Israel’s transformation into a non-Zionist state.

The rise in global interest in Raed Salah (and the reason he represents a threat to Israeli PR campaigns) was reflected in a recent interview he gave to the LA Times. When he was questioned about the Israeli state’s fear of him, Salah replied: ‘Israel considers all who object to its policies as dangerous’. When asked whether the Israeli fear that Palestinians plan to demographically overwhelm Jews and take control of the state is justified, Salah replied: ‘This fear is in and of itself a deliberate accusation against me. I reject it. I am here. Did I come at the expense of someone else, or is my presence legal? If my presence is legal, it is my right to live my life. Those who consider me a danger are telling me that my existence is not legitimate.’

Only the (near) future will tell how much the Islamic Movement in Israel is capable of in terms of playing an increased leadership role for all Palestinian citizens of Israel, and whether Shaykh Ra’ed Salah will remain the Movement’s most high profile leader. If the two branches of the Movement do unite, a fair estimate is that its supporters would account for over fifty percent of the Palestinian population in Israel.

Furthermore, the Islamic Movement and Salah have been open about their desire and efforts to reconstitute the High Follow Up Committee as an elected national representative body for all Palestinians in Israel. If these efforts prove successful, such a development could lead to the further dissociation of Palestinian citizens from the Israeli state and would likely assist the Islamic Movement’s consolidation of power.

Shaykh Raed Salah’s recent victory in the UK may well not be his last.