Skip to main content

Israeli ban on Islamic party marks a ‘dangerous turning point’

Palestinian leaders in Israel warn that Netanyahu is exploiting Paris attacks to ‘shut door’ to minority’s political activity
Leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah, gestures outside a Jerusalem court (AFP)

Nazareth, Israel - The decision by the Israeli government on Tuesday to outlaw the country’s main Islamic Movement marks a dangerous turning point in Israel’s relations with its large Palestinian minority, Palestinian leaders in Israel have warned.

The decision effectively drives underground a religious, political and social movement representing the views of a sizeable portion of Israel’s 1.6 million Palestinian citizens, comprising a fifth of the population.

Jamal Zahalka was among the Palestinian members of the Israeli parliament who called the move a “declaration of war” against the country’s Palestinian minority.

“It is an attack not just on the northern Islamic Movement but on our entire community,” he told Middle East Eye.

He and other community leaders noted that the Islamic Movement has not used or called for violence. He said the ban was driven solely by the agenda of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right.

“Netanyahu is a leader who needs to create enemies,” Zahalka said. “The recent US deal with Iran deprived him of his main bogeyman. The PA is helping him with security in the West Bank. Gaza is quiet. So he makes an enemy of the country’s Palestinian citizens.

“In the elections [in March] he began his ugly incitement by saying we were coming out to vote ‘in droves’. Now he has the Islamic Movement in his sights. But he won’t stop with this.”

Netanyahu first mooted plans two years ago to shut down the northern wing of the Islamic Movement, led by Sheikh Raed Salah.

However, fear of international condemnation, as well as advice from his intelligence services that such a step could not be justified on security grounds, appeared to stay his hand.

Declared ‘illegal organisation’

Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University, said Netanyahu had moved now to exploit the attacks in Paris last Friday, which were claimed by Islamic State (IS) and left 129 dead.

“He is making an entirely false comparison between the Islamic Movement and the most violent armed Islamic groups so that he can persuade the Europeans that this is connected to their fight against terror,” he told MEE.

Declaring the northern Islamic Movement an “illegal organisation”, Netanyahu said it “denies [Israel’s] right to exist and calls for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in its place.”

Early on Tuesday morning, police raided the movement’s head offices in Umm al-Fahm, as well as dozens of Islamic charities and welfare associations in communities such as Nazareth, Jaffa, Kfar Kana, Turan, Beersheva and Rahat.

Some 17 related organisations were also served with orders shutting them down. The group’s leaders were called in for questioning. Computers and documents were seized and the organisations’ bank accounts frozen.

Ghanem said the move would signal to Palestinian citizens that the “door is closed to them when it comes to participating in the democratic process”.

He added: “As well as being politically dangerous, this will also be seen as an assault on Islamic belief. The movement funds and organises student associations that teach the Koran. They will now be treated as illegal.”

Ghanem said nothing about the Islamic Movement had changed in the past decade. “The only thing that changed is the political extremism of Netanyahu and his government.”

Draconian measure

Adalah, a legal group for Palestinians in Israel, said the order from the defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, was based on emergency regulations from the British Mandate period.

The decision threatens with arrest and imprisonment anyone who continues to be involved with the organisation or offers it services.

Adalah called it “an aggressive, draconian measure” that would “suppress a political movement that represents a large part of the Palestinian public in Israel”.

Salah denounced the ban, saying his movement would continue to defend Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City from what he termed Israeli threats.

For more than a decade Salah has clashed with Israeli officials by leading a campaign under the slogan “Al-Aqsa is in danger”, warning that Israel is seeking to erode Islamic sovereignty over the mosque area.

In September the government banned the Murabitoun, Muslim students organised by the Islamic Movement in the al-Aqsa compound. They had regularly clashed with Jewish extremists allowed into the area in ever-increasing numbers by the Israeli authorities.

Netanyahu and other ministers have accused Salah of incitement and blamed him for the wave of Palestinian protests and so-called “lone-wolf” attacks, many of them stabbings, of the past few weeks.

Salah said: “I will take every possible legitimate step, in Israel and internationally, to remove the measures taken against the movement.”

Welfare services threatened

The Islamic Movement was founded in the 1970s as both a political party and a provider of religious and welfare services. It split into two factions in the mid-1990s, with Salah’s so-called northern group refusing to participate in parliamentary elections.

The organisation runs kindergartens, health clinics, mosques, a newspaper and a sports league.

It is also a key member of the Follow-Up Committee, the Palestinian minority’s only representative national body. Mohammed Barakeh, the committee’s head, said the Islamic Movement would continue to participate in defiance of the ban.

Only a fortnight ago, the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported that a year-long investigation by Israel’s domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, had been unable to find security grounds for closing the organisation.

Two unnamed government ministers told the paper that Yoram Cohen, head of the Shin Bet, had told the security cabinet he objected to any move to criminalise the movement’s more than 10,000 members. It would do “more harm than good”, he reportedly told them.

Ghanem said the Shin Bet’s view was based on an assessment that allowing the Islamic Movement to operate “ensured its political activities were more open and more mainstream, and would avoid it being forced underground.

“The fact that Netanyahu has taken the opposite view tells us this is a political decision, not a security one.”

Both Zahalka and Ghanem said they feared that Netanyahu would next target Zahalka’s democratic nationalist party, Balad. Last month the Israeli prime minister accused the Balad party of conspiring with Hamas and Islamic State.

Terror link claims

The government immediately launched a media campaign implying that Salah’s movement had colluded with “terrorism” against Israel.

A document issued by Netanyahu’s office stated that the group was “a sister-movement of the Hamas terrorist organization. These organizations are secretly and actively cooperating with one another.”

The public security minister, Gilad Erdan, went further, saying: “The Islamic Movement, Hamas, ISIS [Islamic State], and the other terror organizations have a common ideological platform that leads to terror attacks in the world and the wave of terror attacks in Israel.”

Ghanem said it was preposterous to claim that the Islamic Movement shared common ground with Islamic State.

He also observed that, while the Islamic Movement and Hamas shared a political and religious ideology, Salah’s group forswore violence and militant activity in pursuit of its aims.

Zeki Aghbaria, a spokesman for the northern Islamic Movement, called the government’s characterisation of the organisation, as “political incitement”.

“Today I suddenly found I had become a criminal,” he told MEE. “That means they just criminalised any support for the defence of al-Aqsa, or for the Palestinian people under occupation, or for equal rights for Palestinian citizens in Israel, or for welfare provision for students and the handicapped.”

The decision effectively puts the Islamic Movement on an equal footing with the Kach movement, a Jewish extremist group banned in the 1990s after one of its members, Baruch Goldstein, gunned down 29 worshippers at the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron.

Kach members, who still have strong representation in some West Bank settlements, call for violence against Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories and demand their expulsion.

‘Anti-democratic persecution’

Ayman Odeh, leader of Joint List faction of all the Palestinian parties in the parliament, said of the move against the Islamic Movement: “This is indisputably a case of political, anti-democratic persecution that is part of the de-legitimization campaign waged by Netanyahu’s government against the country’s Arab citizens.”

However, the decision won overwhelming support from Israeli Jewish parties, including the main centre-left opposition party, Zionist Union.

The timing of Netanyahu’s announcement takes advantage of the growing climate against Islamic political activism at the local, regional and international levels.

Given the mood in Europe and the United States after the Paris attacks, Netanyahu can probably count on the international community not studying too closely the comparisons between the Islamic Movement, Hamas and Islamic State.

Regionally, meanwhile, the Islamic Movement is at its weakest. Its sister organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been outlawed in neighbouring Egypt, while Cairo has joined Israel in isolating Hamas in Gaza.

And locally, the Israeli Jewish public wants someone to blame after weeks of Palestinian attacks, including stabbings, in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel.

Intelligence services have admitted they have little idea how to deal with the so-called “lone wolves”, individual Palestinians not affiliated with any political faction, behind most of the attacks.

Zahalka said Netanyahu wanted a scapegoat and had found a convenient one in Salah. In statements on Tuesday, Netanyahu blamed the weeks of unrest on what he called “incitement” by the Islamic Movement about the status quo at al-Aqsa.

Haifa University sociologist Sammy Smooha told reporters his polls suggested that 42 per cent of Palestinian citizens identified with the Islamic Movement.

Salah is due to start an 11-month prison term next week after an Israeli court found him guilty of incitement over a sermon he delivered in Jerusalem in 2007. It is the latest of several jail terms he has served. 

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.