Israeli authorities crack down on Islamic movement in 1948 Palestine

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In yet another display of apartheid-like repression against 1948 Palestinians, some 1,000 Israeli policemen, intelligence-officers and soldiers swooped down, in the pre-dawn hours of May 13, on the village of Umm al-Fahem in northern Galilee. They arrested 13 Islamic activists within the “Green Line”: Palestinian territory usurped when Israel was established (1948). Two other activists were detained later the same day.

The Israeli forces also confiscated documents, computers and other equipment from the offices of the Al-Aqsa Association, a charity linked to the movement. The Israeli authorities have also banned Sawt al-Haqq wal-Hurriyyah (Voice of Right and Freedom), a weekly newspaper published by a faction of the Islamic Movement.

Among those detained in the raid was Shaykh Ra’ed Salah, the charismatic leader of the radical “northern” branch of the Islamic Movement, the largest and most powerful organization active among “1948 Arabs.” Salah was staying with his seriously ill father in hospital when he was arrested. Shaykh Kamal al-Khatib, deputy leader of the northern branch, said: “They arrested Shaykh Ra’ed as he slept next to the bed of his sick father.” Salah was briefly released from prison between 3pm and 7pm on May 14 to attend the funeral of his father, who died a few hours after his son was detained. The funeral turned into a 5,000-strong demonstration against the arrests.

The crackdown was carried out under the pretext that the Islamic Movement was funnelling millions of dollars in charitable donations from overseas to Hamas in the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip. Israeli public security minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who is in charge of the police, alleged that “the leadership of a political movement has become couriers between outside money and inside terror.”

Initially, Israeli authorities claimed that they had damning evidence that the Islamic Movement has been, in Hanegbi’s words, “oiling the wheels of murderous terrorism,” by using overseas funds to finance Hamas operations, as well as transferring them to families of prisoners and martyrdom-seeking bombers. The Israeli minister told Israel Radio that the detainees “have been working consistently for years to bring in massive amounts of money for activities that…help terror,” adding that “the huge transfer of funds has given Hamas a financial strength without which the movement would have found it difficult to survive in the long term.”

But when the 15 detainees appeared on May 14 at a preliminary hearing in Tel Aviv, where a judge ordered them to remain in custody while an investigation into the charges continues, the Israeli authorities could not produce any evidence. Miri Golan, commander of the police investigations division, admitted that the authorities have yet to unearth any evidence that Shaykh Salah’s branch of the Islamic Movement gave money to Hamas for weapons or explosives. Instead, she claimed, the authorities suspected the movement of supporting families of Hamas-fighters.

Leaders of the Islamic Movement were adamant that the charges are spurious. Speaking to reporters at the group’s headquarters at the Ibn-Taymiyyah Mosque in Umm al-Fahem, Khatib denied the charges, saying: “We have no connections with an organization called Hamas. We help orphans, but directly, not through any third party. Not one cent goes to families of those who carry out attacks.” Islamic Movement spokesman Tawfik Mahameed also rejected the charges, saying: “There is no connection of any kind between the Islamic Movement, either the northern or the southern branches, and any organization of any kind in the [Occupied] Territories.” Leaders of the Islamic Movement expressed concern that the raid was deliberately timed to cause maximum provocation, as it coincided with the holiday marking the birthday of Allah’s Messenger (saw). Hamas has also denied having any ties to the Islamic Movement inside the Green Line, asserting that the latter provides only humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip.

It is true that in the “state terrorism” of Israel’s government, one need not look far for reasons for repressive measures. Still, a comprehensible motive for Israel’s targeting the Islamic Movement can be found in the remarkable successes the movement has achieved in the political and social mobilization of the Muslims inside the Green Line. These successes have long irritated the Israeli authorities.

In many ways the genesis of the Islamic Movement in the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948 affirms the saying that “every cloud has a silver lining.” The movement’s origins can be traced back to the Arab defeat in 1967. The occupation of the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip contributed to an Islamic transformation among Muslims inside the Green Line. In fact the occupation afforded Muslims inside the Green Line the opportunity to invite renowned Palestinian ulama from the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip to deliver speeches and khutbahs in mosques, schools and public meetings. Muslims from areas occupied in 1948 also began to attend madrassahs in the newly-occupied territories. The activist and revivalist ideas of such groups as the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) and the Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party) began to spread through the minds and hearts of Muslims inside the Green Line.

Salah and Shaykh Abdallah Nimer Darwish, the founder and spiritual father of the Islamic Movement, are both products of these developments. As a teenager Darwish had joined the Israeli Communist Party (Hadash). But he soon became disenchanted with Marxism and turned to Islam. In 1972 he received a teaching licence in Islamic studies from the Islamic Institute in Nablus, and began a career as a teacher of religious studies at a primary school in his hometown of Kafr Qassem; he also began to deliver public lectures on Islam. In 1979 his outspokenness got him into trouble and his teaching licence was revoked, but he continued his educational activities outside the state system. Salah attended the Islamic College in al-Khalil (Hebron) between 1976 and 1979. After graduating from college he began to tour the country, spreading his call for a return to Islamic values. He then founded a local charity in Umm al-Fahem, his hometown, the largest Muslim town inside the Green Line, with a population of more than 30,000.

In 1979 Darwish and Farid Ibrahim Abu-Mukh founded a clandestine network, Usrat al-Jihad (‘the Family of Jihad’). The group stockpiled weapons and waged a campaign of resistance, striking mainly at economic targets in agricultural areas, such as fields and crops. Darwish was the spiritual leader of the group; Abu-Mukh, from the village of Baka’a al-Gharbiyyah, was its military and operational commander. The authorities were able to expose Usrat al-Jihad in March 1981, and some 60 of its leaders and members were arrested, tried, and sentenced to various terms. Darwish was sentenced to three years in prison and Abu-Mukh to 15. The prisoners were later released in a prisoner-exchange between Israel and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine√©General Command.

After his release Darwish reviewed his methods, concluding that an underground network of military resistance stood little chance of success because of the enormous imbalance of power. So he turned to activities that would bring about change by peaceful means, within the bounds of Israeli law, emphasising da’wah work, education, and development of health and welfare services.

Originally confined mainly to the three regional centres of Umm al-Fahem, Kafr Qassim and Kafr Qanna, the Islamic Movement soon became prominent. It managed to take root in the mixed cities of Nazareth, Acre, Lod, Ramlah and Jaffa. Most surprising were the inroads it made among the Bedouins of the Negev, where sizeable segments have a history of cooperation with the Israeli authorities. In 1989 a member of the Islamic Movement was elected mayor of the village of Rahat in the Negev.

In 1984 the movement fielded candidates in municipal elections for the first time, getting the mayoralty of two towns, and seats on local councils in several villages. In the 1989 municipal elections, the movement won five mayor and local council chairman positions, and increased its presence in local and municipal councils to 45 seats in 11 councils. The movement continued to augment its municipal power by electoral successes in 1993 and 1998.

However, in 1996 the movement split into two factions, because of disagreements about participation in Israeli political life. Salah, former mayor of Umm al-Fahem, took control of the more radical, uncompromising northern branch, whereas Darwish retained control over the more pragmatic, conciliatory southern branch. The split deprived Darwish of the movement’s printing house, the editorial offices of the weekly Sawt, the Islamic College, Islamic Sports Association, Islamic Association, and other organisations based in or around Umm al-Fahem. So he set out to establish parallel organisations, including a new journal, al-Mithaq (‘the Covenant’).

For the “Northerners,” participation in Israeli parliamentary life amounts to playing into the hands of Zionism. They have urged the “1948 Arabs” not to take part in parliamentary elections, but support taking part in municipal elections, and have fielded candidates to municipal councils of Arab towns and cities. The Northerners’ reservations about parliamentary elections stem mainly from the fact that it involves recognition of Israeli sovereignty and respect for the laws of the Israeli state, which members of the Knesset must swear to uphold. However, participation in local and municipal elections does not require either. Instead, it contributes to self-reliance and communal autonomy from the State. Local and municipal councils have authority to adopt by-laws regulating schools and forbidding the sale and consumption of alcohol in their jurisdiction, for instance.

Darwish and the “Southerners” hold that the movement has no choice but to integrate into Israeli political life. They argue that participation in national politics is the only way to put pressure on Israeli governments to respond to the needs of 1948 Arabs. They also maintain that such participation affords them a better opportunity to organise, campaign for Islamic causes, and propagate their ideas and values among Muslims inside the Green Line. In the 1990s, Darwish supported the Oslo Accords between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel, whereas Salah declared his opposition to the deal that at best would have short-changed the Palestinians.

The two factions have succeeded in filling the social, economic and cultural vacuum left by decades of neglect on the part of Israel’s authorities. They concentrate on promoting self-reliance among and ameliorating the well-being of 1948 Arabs, running successful social-welfare programmes and doing better than secular parties and organisations in aiding the poor. Most of the funding for the Islamic Movement’s programmes comes from donations from Muslims in Arab countries and Muslim communities in the West. Such programmes have been instrumental in easing the worst effects of decades of state-sanctioned discrimination and inequality suffered by 1948 Arabs under successive Israeli governments. These Palestinians, also known as “Israeli Arabs,” have Israeli citizenships and currently number around one million, or some 19 percent of Israel’s population of 6.5 million. A disproportionate number of the poor in Israel are Arabs, who on average earn far less than Jews and whose towns and villages are badly neglected, have substandard infrastructures and facilities, and get much less from state development funds than Jewish areas do. Poverty and unemployment rates among 1948 Arabs, about 30 percent and 20 percent respectively, are double Israel’s overall rates.

In addition to its success in social welfare programmes, Salah’s faction has distinguished itself in rehabilitating, and regaining Islamic control over old awqaf properties and Muslim grounds, especially mosques and cemeteries destroyed or desecrated by the Zionists in Arab villages and towns in and since 1948. A vivid example of their efforts was seen when members of the movement stood guard at the ancient Istiqlal cemetery near Haifa, where Shaykh ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam is buried, to prevent its destruction for the expansion of a highway.

The movement also tries to restore old mosques to Islamic control, demanding that revenues from the properties be given to Muslim control. Salah’s faction has also carried out a renovation project in the basement of the al-Aqsa Mosque. Another example is the movement’s campaign to build a mosque on waqf land adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. This caused a dispute that attracted international attention in the run-up to the Pope’s visit to the city in March 2000.

The recent crackdown seems to be part of a larger Israeli effort to eradicate the Islamic Movement in general, and its northern branch in particular. The authorities have in the last year found out the exact names of organisations receiving donations from the Islamic Movement, as part of an agreement between the two sides after a previous wave of arrests and confiscations of funds by the Israeli government. The Islamic Movement agreed to submit lists of prospective recipients, to be checked by the authorities before money is transferred. The movement has adhered to the letter and spirit of the agreement.

Outlawing the Islamic Movement would mean disqualifying candidates identified with it from taking part in elections (even on the local level) and banning various bodies that extend the reach of the movement. But such attempts are ill-conceived and doomed to failure. The Islamic Movement has become deeply entrenched in Muslim civil society inside the Green Line; with the prevailing atmosphere of dissatisfaction and alienation engendered by Israeli policies, no amount of repression seems able to crush the aspirations of Arabs inside the Green Line for self-reliance, and for both institutional and religious autonomy. Israel will soon find that the Islamic Movement is not easy to crush.

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