Israel Outlaws Islamic Movement's Northern Branch

Police shut down 17 Islamic Movement offices, seize documents, computers and funds, and freeze some of its bank accounts.

Sheik Ra'ad Salah, right, head of the Islamic Movement's northern branch.
Sheik Ra'ad Salah, right, head of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, at a protest in solidarity with hunger-striking prisoners in June. Gil Eliyahu

The security cabinet has decided to outlaw the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement on Tuesday.

The announcement was issued after Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon signed a declaration to outlaw the group in accordance with his authority under Israel's Emergency Regulations.

Per the announcement, any organization or individual belonging to the northern branch or found assisting the organization in any way will be committing a criminal offense and is liable for imprisonment. Moreover, the announcement gives the government permission to confiscate all land that belongs to the organization.

In light of the decision to outlaw the branch, the Israel Police and Shin Bet security service seized the group's property and closed its offices. Court orders were issued to shut down 17 non-profit organizations and movements that operate on behalf of the group, including those in Rahat, Jaffa, Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm. The Shin Bet also said the bank accounts of these organizations that were used "for the movement's activities against state security" had been frozen overnight, and that computers and documents found in the offices during an overnight raid had been seized.

A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said the cabinet decided to outlaw the northern branch of the Islamic Movement two weeks ago, but that it agreed to let the prime minister and defense minister, in coordination with security officials, decide on when to publicize the news. The official noted that the Israel Police and Shin Bet asked to delay the official announcement by two weeks, until after they had completed a raid on the branch's offices. On Sunday night, the prime minister, defense minister and public security minister made a final decision on when to make the announcement: overnight Monday.

Sheik Ra’ad Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, on Nov. 17, 2015.
Haaretz

In light of the announcement, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee announced a general strike to take place on Thursday in protest of the decision, and called for mass demonstrations across Israel on Saturday.

The Prime Minister's Office said that outlawing the northern branch of the Islamic Movement is an essential step in maintaining public security. The decision, the Prime Minister's Office added, is directed toward those who motivate and support incitement and racist activities, destabilize the area and cause loss of life. "This move is not directed against the Arab and Muslim public in Israel, the great majority of which upholds the laws of the state and disavows incitement and terrorism," the Prime Minister's Office emphasized.

"The northern branch of the Islamic Movement has for years lead a deceitful campaign of incitement under the title 'Al-Aqsa is in danger,' falsely accusing Israel of intending to harm the mosque and deviate from the status quo," read documents disturbed by the Prime Minister's Office. The document added that "the northern branch established a salaried group of activists (called the Morabitat) aimed at initiating provocations on the Temple Mount. This action significantly raised tensions on the Temple Mount. A large portion of the recent attacks were carried out against the backdrop of this incitement and propaganda."

The document adds: "The northern branch, led by Sheik Ra’ad Salah, is a sister-movement of the terrorist organization Hamas. The movements maintain close, secret ties. The northern branch of the Islamic Movement is a separatist, racist group that does not recognize the institutions of the State of Israel, denies its right to exist, and calls for replacing it with an Islamic Caliphate in its place." Salah was sentenced in October to 11 months in jail after being convicted in 2013 of incitement to violence over remarks he made in 2007. He has not begun serving his term.

The Islamic Movement is a faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, and, as the document explains, "the two movements share an extreme ideological approach and a common goal: to destroy Israel." 

"The Cabinet decision was made after a series of in-depth discussions with all the relevant legal and security advisers in order to stop the dangerous incitement from and prevention of harm to innocent civilians," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday. 

"My government will continue to take whatever action is necessary against incitement and terror," he continued, "and we will continue to invest resources to benefit the citizens of Israel, Jews and Arabs alike."

He said Tuesday afternoon that democracy must "defend itself against those who undermine it," adding that as someone responsible for security of the State of Israel, he will not allow the group to "undermine the country in order to establish an Islamic caliphate in its place."

"We have nothing against Islam," Netanyahu reiterated. "We have nothing against Israel's Muslim citizens who enjoy full and equal rights."

Sheik Ra’ad Salah, leader of the group's northern branch, said it would take legal action against the Israeli ban. "I am proud to persist as head of the Islamic Movement and will be victorious in its name and victorious in its principles, Jerusalem and the blessed al-Aqsa mosque paramount among them," Salah said in a statement.

A police spokeswoman said Salah was summoned to police headquarters to be notified formally of the edict but was not under arrest. 

The Joint Arab List released a scathing statement in response to the outlawing of the group, calling the decision "brutal and clearly anti-democratic."

"The decision is an acute attack on elementary rights like freedom of worship, association and expression," said the statement. The Joint Arab List also accused Netanyahu of "exploiting the situation in the region and in the world to escalate the incitement assault against the Arab minority," and demanded that he reverse the decision.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said in a statement that outlawing the group was "another tool in our war against groups which foment incitement and terrorism, and undermine (the state) in different ways. According to him, the step was taken because the group "endangers the State of Israel and cooperates, according to data gathered, with Palestinian terror groups including Hamas, in effort to inflame the region and cause violence." Ya'alon added that Israel must continue to work toward inclusion for its Arab citizens. "The Islamic Movement seeks to harm the coexistence and inclusion of Israeli Arabs, and it's the our duty – both of the Israeli leadership and of Israeli Arabs – to battle this phenomenon as well," he said.

The human rights organization Amnesty International said the decision to outlaw the Islamic Movement raises concerns over freedom of speech and association in Israel, noting in particular the raids, preventative arrests and property confiscations as causes for concern. "Especially worrying is the fact the decision was made by the Israeli cabinet, without a fair process which gives the movement the chance to defend itself in legal proceedings," said a statement released by Amnesty.

"We're worried by the selective enforcement, that while those who encourage the atmosphere of incitement against the Palesitnian minority in Israel, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and cabinet ministers and other high officials enjoy immunity, the northern branch of the Islamic Movement has been outlawed due to remarks made by individual members," said Yonatan Gher, CEO of the Israel branch of Amnesty International. 

Minister of Immigrant Absorption and Jerusalem Zeev Elkin (Likud), who is a security cabinet member, said "this is a historic decision by Israel to deal face to face with the extreme incitement of radical Islam, which underlies the current wave of terrorism and denies the very right of Israel to exist.

"It's time to understand," he said, "that if a modern democracy wants to win the battle against terrorism by extremist radical Islam it must learn to defend itself. Incitement in mosques, educational system, and the media all translate into young people with knives in the streets. We decided to tackle the root cause of this serious disease with antibiotics rather than just giving aspirin."

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan says in a statement Tuesday that "Israel must act as an example and spearhead the struggle against radical Islam whose emissaries we saw massacring innocent people in Paris," among other places. He says the group shares an ideology with the Islamic State and the Islamic militant Hamas.

Since October 1, 14 Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians. At least 78 Palestinians, 47 of them assailants according to police, have been killed by security forces at scenes of assaults and many others in violent protests in the West Bank and near the Gaza border.

Haifa University sociologist and pollster Sammy Smooha said about 42 percent of Israeli Arabs say they support the Islamic Movement. The group is split between the more radical northern branch and the southern faction, which participates in mainstream Israeli politics. 

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.