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Islamic leader in Israel watches Hamas’ fate closely

Sheikh Raed Salah, seen by Israeli Jews as a “rabble-rouser” and “ally to terrorists”, says he is the one with most to fear amid Gaza's crisis
Sheikh Raed Salah is the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel (Wikicommons)

UMM AL-FAHM - There are no wrecked houses, no crushed or blasted bodies in Umm al-Fahm. But Israel is waging a campaign against this town of 45,000 inhabitants closely related to its current assault on Gaza.

This is the home town of Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the northern Islamic Movement, considered the more radical of its two branches in Israel and perceived as ideologically close to Hamas.

Though Salah rejects violent resistance as a strategy for his movement, it has done little to stop most Israeli Jews viewing him as public enemy no 1.

His refusal to engage with Israel as Jewish state, his rallying cry that the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem needs protecting from Israel, and his frequent spells in Israeli jails have contributed to his reputation as a “convicted facilitator of terror and rabble-rouser”, as a recent Israeli editorial described him.

With Salah its most famous son, Umm al-Fahm has become a key political battleground. This is where Israeli leaders most frequently question the “loyalty” of the country’s large Palestinian minority, comprising a fifth of the population. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has long campaigned for a land swap to make Umm al-Fahm and nearby towns part of the West Bank.

The battle scars are on show at the entrance to Umm al-Fahm. Traces of congealed black rubber from burnt tyres mark the site of repeated recent clashes between the police and local residents. On my visit to meet Salah, the air was filled with the nauseating aroma of “skunk”, a pungent liquid Israel uses in place of water cannon to disperse protesters.

Clashes here and elsewhere in Israel’s north had been triggered by the gruesome killing this month of a 16-year-old boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, in Jerusalem and the mounting death toll in Gaza. In response, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, warned the protesters ominously: "There's no place in the state of Israel for those who throw rocks at police.”

Dangerous subversive

While Salah’s popular image is as a dangerous subversive, among Israel’s 1.6 million Palestinian citizens the sheikh has much support, not only from radical Muslims but secular Palestinians too, including Christians.

Amal Jamal, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, has called Salah’s brand of Islam “warm, spiritual, inclusive”.  Mohammed Zeidan, director of the Human Rights Association in Nazareth, calls him “the most credible political figure among the Palestinian public in Israel. He’s seen as incorruptible and absolutely committed to the fight for justice.”

During our meeting, the sheikh is far more cautious – at times, even evasive – than the image portrayed in the Israeli media of a rabid anti-semite.

He certainly has good reason to be prudent. Recent events mean most of his ideological allies in the region are in trouble. In particular, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has taken a battering from the new military regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is back underground, its leadership locked up and the party banned.

Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories, meanwhile, is facing a relentless crackdown. In the West Bank, Israel used the pretext of three abducted Israeli teenagers in June to arrest Hamas supporters and undermine its network of institutions. In Gaza, the Israeli army appears to be trying to inflict enough damage on Hamas to force it to sign a ceasefire agreement that will amount to a surrender document.

Most of the Gulf states, once reported to be big financial donors to Muslim Brotherhood-style movements, including Salah’s, have turned hostile. The distinctive blend of Islam and Palestinian nationalism that characterises the appeal of both Hamas and Salah’s movement is being challenged by extremist jihadist groups like Islamic State, which demand a return to a supposed golden era of an Islamic caliphate that ruled the whole region. Islamic State has made unexpected gains in Iraq and Syria but at a terrible cost in blood.

Salah avoids talking about his own diminished funding sources. But Hamas’ only ally in the Gulf is now Qatar, which offered sanctuary to Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and is promising massive funds to rebuild Gaza after a ceasefire.

In a sign of Israel’s determination to isolate local Islamic movements, Lieberman proposed this week banning the Qatari channel Al-Jazeera from Israel, alleging it was spreading “propaganda”. He averred: “Qatar constitutes the economic spine of the most radical terrorist groups.”  

Salah has been regularly invited on the channel, especially over his regular confrontations with Israeli police at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem.

Crime against humanity

Now Israel’s war on Hamas is expected to lead directly to Salah’s door. According to reports in the Israeli media, Netanyahu is well advanced on moves to outlaw the northern Islamic Movement.

Calling Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza a “crime against humanity”, Salah hastens to add that he has no special insights into what is unfolding there. ‘We have no connections with Hamas. We follow the current atrocities in Gaza by watching the media, like everyone else.”

Does his organisation share an ideological affinity with Hamas? “They have their own organisations and we have ours. Our operations and interests are limited to the boundaries of our Palestinian community. Their struggle is different. They live under occupation.”

He believes Israel’s true goal in launching Operation Protective Edge was not to end rocket fire from Gaza but destroy the recent reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. “The reconciliation bothered Israel and the US. That was a major incentive for launching the attack.”

About his own situation, he sounds surprisingly sanguine. He notes that previous Israeli governments considered banning the Islamic Movement but relented. “I believe we exist here because of a divine decree from God, not because of a permit from Netanyahu.”

But as Salah recounts the Israeli restrictions against him – banning him from entering Jerusalem and the West Bank, and travelling abroad, leaving him under a kind of loose house arrest – it is hard to imagine he is not taking Netanyahu’s declarations seriously.

Why do Israelis see him as such a threat? “Ask them. They say I am engaged in illegal activities but all their information is secret. It is a mystery they created to serve their purposes.”

Price-tag attacks

The threats to the Islamic Movement, he believes, reflect a wider Israeli policy of repressing political activism by the Palestinian minority. “The discourse now is one of incitement against the whole Arab community [in Israel]. Why are they afraid of us? We have much greater reasons to fear them.”

He points to the so-called “price-tag” attacks by far-right groups that have increasingly switched target from the West Bank to Palestinian communities inside Israel. In April one such group tried to burn down a mosque in Umm al-Fahm. “They do not act without high-level support. The Israeli leadership is trying to drag its community to the right.”

Salah’s northern Islamic Movement has distinguished itself from the southern branch by refusing to participate in Israeli national elections. That way, it has kept its hands clean politically and proved prescient in reading the Palestinian minority’s mood. In recent general elections, barely half of Palestinian citizens have turned out.

Instead the Islamic Movement has concentrated on creating an extensive network of more than two dozen charities – from schools and health clinics to welfare centres and Islamic information centres – offering a vision of Muslim organisation free of Israeli state interference.

Is there a way to reconcile with a Jewish state? No, he says. It’s policies are “tyrannical and racist”. “The Israeli establishment has refused to make peace with us, despite our being citizens. If it cannot deal with us, how can it make peace with Palestinians more generally? In the West Bank, in Gaza, in Jerusalem there is a reaction to Israeli oppression, a reaction to Israel’s behaviour. If that behaviour stops, then so will the reaction.”

Sowing sectarian discord

Salah blames successive Israeli governments for seeking to create and exploit tensions between the various Palestinian sects, noting Netanyahu’s current efforts to conscript Israel’s Palestinian Christians for the first time into the Israeli army. “For decades Israel tried to sow discord but the policy failed till now. Netanyahu will fail also.”

Salah’s “Al-Aqsa is in danger” rallies attract tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens. Salah believes it falls to the Palestinian minority in Israel to protect the most important Islamic holy place in occupied East Jerusalem, given Israeli movement restrictions that prevent Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank reaching the city as well as Israel’s refusal to allow the Palestinian Authority any role in Jerusalem.

Control of the al-Aqsa mosque compound has the potential to trigger a Palestinian uprising, as it did in 2000 when former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon made a provocative visit to the site backed by hundreds of security guards.

How exactly is Israel threatening al-Aqsa? Salah laughs. “Al-Aqsa is under Israeli occupation, which means it is constantly in danger. There is no good occupation in history. All have been a source of evil.”

He believes Israel’s claim that al-Aqsa is built over two ancient Jewish temples is simply a ploy to gain control of the site. “They have no right to one iota of land at al-Aqsa.”

Should Muslims from around the world step in to help in this battle to protect al-Aqsa, as some clerics have suggested. Salah is opposed. “We will welcome Muslim visitors only after the Israeli occupation is banished from Jerusalem.”

Flawed vision of Islam

A former Israeli defence minister, Moshe Arens, wrote recently that Salah’s movement was “actively engaged in subversive activity aimed at destroying the State of Israel and establishing in its place an Islamic State”. What kind of political Islam does he want for the region? Are jihadist groups like Islamic State potential allies or enemies?

Salah is careful to pin the blame on a strange amalgam of secular Arab dictators, Iran and the west, rather than Islamic State, possibly hinting at a desire not to further alienate his former supporters in the Gulf.

“There are many indications that [Islamic State’s] vision of Islam is flawed. But the real enemies of the Islamic project are Bashar al-Assad [in Syria], Nuri al-Maliki [in Iraq], Sisi, Iran and the Western powers. They are trying to undermine the role of Islamic State to deface the Islamic project.”

Salah says the correct interpretation of political Islam is to be found in the strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood, who waited patiently to win a mandate at the ballot box. “They were toppled by the Egyptian military with Israeli and US support. That coup is much worse than anything Islamic State is doing.

“What we see clearly is that the western powers endeavour to prevent the Arab world from practising democratic life. They believe tyrants like Assad and Maliki can better advance their interests.”

But what of the fear among Palestinian Christians at the rise of this violent brand of Islam? Does that not damage the more inclusive, peaceful Islamic project he and the Brotherhood say they want?

“Bashar, Maliki and Sisi are attacking their people indiscriminately, whether they are Muslim or Christian, they are defiling sacred places whether they are churches or mosques. This causes anxiety for us all, not just Christians.”

No problem with Jews

So what is his vision of the future for Palestinians? There can be no improvement in their catastrophic situation until Israeli occupation and western interference end, he says.

“What does Hamas call for? It demands the occupation ends on Palestinian soil, and after this the Palestinian people will decide how they will live according to their own will.”

But does that include the area called Israel, and what about the Jews who live here? Do they have a place in this state? “Zionist propaganda falsely accuses us of wishing to throw them into the sea. We affirm once again that we have no problem with the Jewish religion or with those who practise it.

“We do have a problem with the Zionist project, which exploits the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. Zionism created the nakba [or catastrophe – the mass dispossession of Palestinians in 1948] and enforces an occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. When that oppression ends, including the legacy of the nakba, then we will have no problem with the Jewish people.”

But given the lurch rightwards by Israeli society, what should the Palestinian minority being doing? His answer sounds as much of a prescription for Palestinians in Gaza as it does those in Israel.

“We try to build institutions in many areas of our lives so that we can become as self-sufficient as possible. Our agreed strategy is that we must remain steadfast, stay by our sacred places, and remain in our homes whatever the intensity of the attacks.”

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