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Sharon targets homegrown Islamists

The Daily Star – 8 July 2003

Israeli Prime minister Ariel Sharon has been quietly flexing his muscles against Israel’s two Islamist movements in recent weeks, leading one of the organization’s political leaders to call the crackdown a “declaration of war on Islam.”
 
Last week Sharon sent hundreds of heavily armed policemen into the center of Nazareth, Israel’s only Arab city, to demolish the foundations of a mosque being built there, in a dramatic strike against the southern Islamic Movement. The party’s leader on the city council, Salman Abu Ahmed, was among half a dozen Muslims arrested at the site.
 
And earlier, in mid-May, the prime minister sent hundreds of police to arrest Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the rival northern Islamic Movement, as well as more than a dozen senior figures in his party on suspicion of aiding the Palestinian militant group Hamas. After being questioned for more than five weeks, Salah and four others were charged on June 24 with funneling money to the organization.
 
Sharon, like his predecessors, has regularly threatened to crack down on the country’s Islamists, but always before he has hesitated. The question is why has he chosen to act now? To explain his new thinking, it is first necessary to understand how the two Islamic movements emerged in Israel and the very different relations each has with the state.
 
Islamic politics began in the early 1980s with the Young Muslims, led by Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish from the Arab town of Kfar Qassem in the country’s center. Organizing locally as voluntary associations to promote social activities and raise money, the Young Muslims slowly coalesced into a countrywide movement.
 
At the political level the leadership concentrated solely on municipal elections until the mid-1990s, taking its first council in 1984 and four more in 1989. Its heartland was in what is known as the Triangle region, a narrow strip heavily populated with Arab towns and villages that runs along the pre-1967 border with the West Bank, close to the Palestinian cities of Jenin, Tulkarem and Qalqiliya.
 
The government’s “Judaization” program – settling Jews among Israel’s Palestinian population – failed to seriously dent the Triangle, which has remained the least integrated of all the Arab areas in the Jewish state.
 
In the 1990s the popularity of the Islamic Movement spread beyond its traditional stronghold. This partly reflected the growth of political Islam across the Arab world and an increasing alienation from Zionism (the latter a result of the minority’s exposure to new perspectives provided by the media, particularly satellite TV).
 
But it was also a legacy of the movement’s visible success in improving services in Arab municipalities starved of budgets for decades. Towns like Umm al-Fahm that had almost nothing more to offer than its neighboring villages soon gained kindergartens, community centers, libraries, drug treatment centers and medical clinics. In this, the work of the Islamic Movement mirrored that of Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
 
The movement refused to participate in national elections until 1996, when the traditional leadership under Darwish changed course by standing for the Knesset in a joint list with the Democratic Arab Party, winning two seats.
 
But the decision bitterly divided his supporters, forcing Salah, then mayor of Umm al-Fahm, to break away to form his own party.
 
Today, Salah’s faction is known as the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, while the original group is known as the southern branch. These titles refer to the relative locations of the two groups’ heartlands: Salah’s town of Umm al-Fahm is at the northern end of the Triangle, close to the Arab-dominated Galilee, while Darwish’s base in Kfar Qassem is at the Triangle’s southern tip, close to Tel Aviv and its sprawling suburbs.
 
Although both wings have continued performing the same essential functions – Islamizing the political and cultural spaces in Arab areas, protecting Muslim holy places, providing social services – they have diverged on the key ideological question of their relationship to the state.
 
The southern wing, now led in the Knesset by Abdulmalik Dehamshe, accepts the rules of the national political game, swearing at least nominal fealty to Israel. On the question of the existence of a Jewish state, Darwish is pragmatic, arguing: “I believe we should establish a Muslim state in the entire Arab Muslim world, but there cannot be an Islamic state in a country that has a Jewish majority.”
 
The movement’s relationship with the authorities is at best murky; although its leaders clash regularly with the government on symbolic and discrimination issues – over support for the Palestinians and on the minority’s national rights – the state has at times appeared to favor the movement.
 
The most obvious example is the Israeli government’s support for Nazareth’s Shihabeddine Mosque, which was provocatively sited next to one of Christianity’s holiest churches. Two government inquiries approved the mosque, even over active the opposition of the Vatican and rulings by the courts. Government support was only reversed after the intervention of US President George W. Bush last year.
 
Salah’s movement, by contrast, appears to have “clean hands.” It refuses to countenance running for the Knesset, concentrating its efforts at the local level. It also does not recognize Israel. In an interview on the first anniversary of the intifada, Salah said: “If you ask me whether I recognize Israel as a cultural or democratic state, my answer is that I do not. Israel is a military state. I cannot accord legitimization to those who do not recognize my legitimacy.”
 
The northern wing has also entrenched its positions on the holy sites since the decision by Benjamin Netanyahu to open the Western Wall tunnel in 1996.
 
A year later Salah launched the “Al-Aqsa is in danger” campaign, and has been holding annual rallies in Umm al-Fahm that attract up to 50,000 supporters.
 
Admired by Islamists, secular Muslims and Christians alike, Salah is the nearest thing the country’s Palestinian citizens have to a spiritual leader. This, and his increasingly fiery warnings that the government cannot be trusted to protect al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock mosques, has made him deeply unpopular with the Shin Bet security service and Sharon.
 
They have shut down the newspaper of Salah’s movement, closed its charity offices and restricted Salah’s travel, although no justification for this measure was ever given.
 
Finally, in May, the police rounded up the leaders of his group on suspicion of helping Hamas. Although the original allegations promoted by the government suggested that Salah had actively helped fund Hamas terror activities, the police, after much hesitation, significantly lessened the charges.
 
The main claim is that Salah’s group gave money to funds that benefited the families of suicide bombers and “terrorists.” This largely depends on Israel retrospectively defining such donations as illegal: Some money, for example, went into funds to help prisoners buy toothpaste and phone cards. Almost no one in the minority – including Salah’s enemies – believes he has committed a crime. If the foot-dragging is any indication, the police seem uncertain, too.
 
But Sharon’s real goal is the emasculation of Salah and his more radical Islamic party.
 
There are several reasons for this. Sharon sees Salah’s campaign on Al-Aqsa as a danger to Israel’s own claims of sovereignty over Jerusalem’s holy sites, which will be pushed hard if the city ever has to be divided up under a peace deal.
 
Sharon dislikes Salah’s fundraising for Islamic charities, fearing both that it bypasses Israel’s controls on how money is channeled to the Palestinians and that it helps keep Palestinian Islamic groups popular. By linking Salah and Hamas, Sharon also hopes to reinforce a false impression, whose benefits he may be able to reap later, that Palestinian terrorism is spreading to Arab-Israelis.
 
Sharon’s view of Islamic politics inside Israel is no different from his view of Islamic politics in the Palestinian territories: It is useful until it proves harmful.
 
Just as the Israeli government allowed Hamas to flourish in the 1980s as a bulwark against the emergence of a unified Palestinian nationalism, so the Islamic Movement in Israel was encouraged as a way to curb the fledgling nationalist ambitions of the minority by emphasizing sectarian values.
 
The unappealing Islamic rhetoric used by many of its members also alienated the West from the minority’s valid questions not only about discrimination but also about the ideological sense of a Jewish state, a fifth of whose population is Arab.
 
In this, the southern movement and its divisive campaigns – include the Nazareth mosque issue – have played into the authorities’ hands.
 
As one observer in Nazareth pointed out, “Sharon and his ilk can point to Nazareth and say: ‘Look, the Muslims and Christians there cannot live in peace. It’s just the same in Jerusalem. Only the Jews can be relied on to protect the sanctity of the holy sites.’”
 
Salah’s role, however, has proved more galvanizing than divisive. He has provided an example of quiet resistance to Zionist policies and shown a dignity that has gained him almost universal respect. Given the right moment, Sharon fears, Salah could mobilize the community into action.
 
Just as Hamas refuses to compromise with the occupation, Salah refuses to compromise with the Jewish state. For Sharon, both are proving more trouble than they are worth.

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