By Tilde Rosmer, researcher at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages (University of Oslo).
Last week, the former head of the Northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Shaykh Ra’ed Salah, was sentenced by the High Court to nine months in prison for ‘incitement to racism’ based on a speech he had given in 2007. (His original sentence of 11 months was reduced, reportedly because he had not committed the offence since 2007).
The decision to prosecute Shaykh Salah is seen by many of the Movement’s supporters as part of a wider effort by the state of Israel to clamp down on its Northern branch in recent weeks and months.
Most notably, on 17 November 2015, the Netanyahu-led government outlawed the extra-parliamentary Northern branch on the basis that its leaders, including Shaykh Salah, incite their followers to violence. The Southern branch of the Islamic Movement, which is led by Shaykh Hammad Abu Daabes and continues to participate in national elections through the Joint List, remains lawful.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reported to have argued that the Northern branch should be treated like the extremist Jewish Kach movement, which was declared a terrorist organisation in 1994. The decision to ban the Northern branch is the outcome of a process begun in 2014 when Netanyahu formed a ministerial team to review the Northern branch’s activities. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, perhaps best articulated the government’s position when he argued that, ‘[Hamas leader] Ismail Haniyeh is in a bunker, and [the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt Mohammed] Morsi is in jail, and only Salah is still running free in Galilee campaigning for Hamas against Israel… As I have proposed on several previous occasions, we must outlaw the Islamic Movement’. The “campaigning” he was referring to was a protest involving 10,000 Palestinians in northern Israel against the war on Gaza in 2014.
In his televised speech announcing the ban Netanyahu’s declared: ‘Democracy must defend itself, it must defend itself from those who undermine it. The Islamic Movement’s Northern branch undermines the state. The Movement incites violence against civilians and has close ties with the Hamas terrorist organisation and they undermine the state with the aim of replacing it with an Islamic caliphate.’
From the point of view many of Palestinian citizens of Israel, however, the ban is an attack on their rights to representation and association, as well as on their freedom of speech. Notably, Palestinian leaders from across the spectrum of this national minority within Israel – whether nationalist, secular, Islamist or Christian, protested and condemned the ban, deriding it as yet another example of Israel’s “divide and rule” approach to its Palestinian citizens.
The ban was also criticized by members of the Israeli security services on two principal grounds. First, that there is no proof of the alleged violent behavior. Second, that the ban would likely serve to increase radicalization among the Movement’s supporters and to encourage activists to go underground, making it more difficult for the security services to monitor and respond to their activities.
The consequences of the ban may turn out to be more far-reaching than the government had foreseen. In addition to causing the closure of the Northern branch’s main office and curtailing the religious and political activism of this branch, the ban affected numerous organisations and charities associated with the Movement. As with similar religious-political-social movements in the region, this branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel operates in a decentralized manner and relies on grassroots activism. This activism is carried out through a loose network of organisations that offer free or subsidized assistance in diverse fields such as education, healthcare, childcare and social care. In Israel, the Islamic Movement has filled many of the gaps left by the state’s neglect of its non-Jewish Arab minority. Since the Movement’s Northern branch was outlawed, its organisations have had to shut down and their activities have ceased, leaving thousands of pupils, students, elderly and otherwise needy former beneficiaries without the social, educational and other support services they had previously received. In Jaffa alone, now a part of Tel Aviv municipality, the ban has left 500 needy families without benefits, raising the question of what will happen to those who had relied on the Northern branch’s support now that the source of that support has been outlawed.
Additionally, after the ban, several thousand men and women who were employed in the various organisations funded by the Movement became unemployed overnight. According to one report, the staff at one unemployment office were shocked when former employees of the Movement’s organisations arrived with salary statements and papers to claim their unemployment benefits – the staff had no idea that the Movement’s organisations functioned in such an orderly manner, or that it paid its employees salaries. Similarly, it is not clear that the government appreciated how costly the ban would prove to be for the state.
Paradoxically, the prohibition of the Northern branch of the Islamic Movement may turn out to be a galvanizing moment for its supporters. Already, a new extra-parliamentary movement has been announced by some of its former members, under the name “Trust and Reform“. While this new movement is described by activists as aiming to represent all groups within the Arab community in Israel, critics have accused the Trust and Reform movement of being the Northern branch in disguise.
Shaykh Salah has previously spoken of his vision of creating a single, elected extra-parliamentary body that would represent all Palestinians in Israel. Perhaps the banning of his branch of the Islamic Movement will breathe life into this vision and turn it into a reality.