A month-and-a-half ago, three days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the "Northern Branch" of the Islamic Movement in Israel held a mass rally under the slogan "Al-Aqsa in Danger" - referring to the mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem - in the soccer stadium of the city of Umm al-Fahm in Galilee. A more sensitive date for the rally would be hard to imagine. But Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, the leader of the Northern Branch, didn't feel he had to make allowances for anyone. His message to U.S. President George W. Bush could not have been more clear: He called on Bush to convert to Islam.

A crowd of 50,000 people came to hear Sheikh Salah. No other political or religious leader among Israel's Arab population can draw a crowd of that size. Nor is there another political or religious leader who posits such a sharp challenge to Israel. Sheikh Salah's movement does not recognize the State of Israel and does not take part in the elections to the Knesset. The underlying basis of his behavior towards the state is neither political nor cultural; it is religious and, as such, his views are not open to negotiation.

Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, 48, was born in Umm al-Fahm, and is the father of seven children. His father served in the Israel Police in the areas of Misgav, Shfaram and Jenin (in the West Bank). Two of his brothers are also police officers, one in Hadera and the other at the Wadi Ara station. Sheikh Salah says he has no problem with this family background, as his brothers were not involved in the events of October 2000, when the police shot dead 13 Israeli Arabs during riots at the start of the intifada.

Until two months ago, Sheikh Salah was the mayor of Umm al-Fahm. From his youth he has been a devout Muslim, always praying five times a day. He completed his studies in sharia (Muslim religious law) in Hebron at the college of religious studies at the end of the 1970s. He then joined the resurgent Islamic Movement, led at the time by Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, and began to work for the movement's weekly magazine as an editor and a columnist.

In 1989, the Council of Elders of the Islamic Movement decided to run Sheikh Salah as a candidate for mayor of Umm al-Fahm. In the elections, he defeated the candidate of the Hadash party, Hashem Mahameed, who is now a Knesset member on the United Arab List. When he resigned, two months ago, he cited weariness as the reason: "I am worn out and I can't go on any longer," he stated.

For some years now, the municipal affairs of Umm al-Fahm have been overshadowed by a titanic struggle being waged by Sheikh Salah and Abdullah Nimr Darwish. In 1996, Darwish decided that the Islamic Movement would run for the Knesset, a decision that was supported by a majority on the Council of Elders. Sheikh Salah disagreed vehemently with this move and broke with the movement. Several attempts have been made since then to heal the rift between Salah's "Northern Branch" and Nimr Darwish's "Southern Branch," but the crisis was only exacerbated.

The Northern Branch has become more extreme in its approach in the past few years. In 1997, a year after the violence that was triggered by the opening of the "Western Wall tunnel" by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sheikh Salah decided to emphasize the issue of Al-Aqsa Mosque and "the danger posed to the mosque from the direction of Israel and right-wing and extremist circles in Israel." The initial rallies "for the sake of Al-Aqsa" attracted little interest. Today, though, such gatherings are broadcast live via pirate television stations and on the Internet, and draw worldwide attention. Sheikh Salah is viewed as a national hero.

In the past, Sheikh Salah was an amateur basketball player and he liked to fish. The bag he takes with him everywhere contains a Koran and a mobile phone. He starts his day with the dawn prayer at about 4 A.M. In the past year, he has recited the morning prayer in his home. When replying to questions, he casts his glance at the floor.

"I stopped praying in the mosque because of the problematic, unstable security situation," he explains. His life, he feels, is in immediate danger. "I have received a few letters with threats of murder. Just this week, I received two threatening letters from anonymous extremist Jews who wrote explicitly that they want to liquidate me."

Threatened or threatening? In what follows, Sheikh Salah offers a rare glimpse into his political, cultural and social world, and elaborates his approach on a variety of subjects: from the future of Israel to sports and culture.

`A murderer like that'

What is your reaction to the assassination of Rehavam Ze'evi?

Sheikh Salah: "It was not a surprise. Things were clear. Violence begets only violence and liquidation begets liquidation. Ze'evi's assassination was preceded by several assassinations of Palestinian leaders. Two days before his assassination, two Palestinian leaders were liquidated by Israel."

Will Israel still exist as the Jewish state in another hundred years?

"The Israeli entity is not something sacred that is above everything and transcends history. It is obvious that the Israeli entity has not succeeded until now in acclimatizing, either within the Arab Palestinian circle or the Islamic circle. Anyone who argues otherwise is deluding himself. Israel has acclimatized with the leadership of part of the Arab and Islamic world. However, a large part of those leaders came to power in ways that are unacceptable and undemocratic, and they definitely do not represent the nations they purport to represent.

"It is clear that the Israeli entity has not succeeded in constructing a hierarchical, integrated Israeli society. There are religious and secular, Sephardim and non-Sephardim, Jews and non-Jews. This raises a big question about the future of the Israeli entity. In addition, the collapse of morality is becoming ever deeper within the Israeli society. This is reflected in violence within the society and the use of drugs. A society in which phenomena like these are spreading cannot preserve itself and will not be able to do so even if it wishes to."

Will the Islamic Movement ever recognize Israel as the Jewish state?

"Israel has become a political reality that can neither be disavowed nor argued about. I am very critical of the political reality that is called Israel, which defines itself solely as the Jewish state and ignores me. If you ask me whether I recognize Israel as a cultured or democratic state - my answer is that I do not. Israel is a military state. Not only does it not recognize me, it also treats me as though I have been a danger within it since its establishment. I cannot accord legitimization to those who do not recognize my legitimacy."

What is your attitude toward Prime Minister Ariel Sharon?

"A personality who has murdered thousands of innocent people - what is one to do with a personality like that? The murdered are known and the murderer is known. What can one say about a murderer like that?"

Do you think there is a difference between Ariel Sharon and former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, from the Labor Party?

"There is no difference at all. I do not view differences on the basis of making allowances of one kind or another, but according to my life and the attitude the two of them take toward me as part of the Palestinian people. The same attitude shown by Sharon was shown by Ben-Ami. Just because Ben-Ami smiled at the Palestinian people after what he did, and Sharon did not, does not mean that there is any difference between them."

Is there any possibility that you will ever run in the Knesset elections?

"Absolutely and definitely not."

Why not?

"The Israeli establishment views the role of Arab Knesset members as being totally marginal, a media role only. We in the Islamic Movement do not wish to play that role. We aspire to remain at the status we have achieved today and to reinforce our institutions ever more strongly."

How do you view the Knesset?

"The Israeli Knesset has two tasks: to further the Jewish society and to serve as a media platform for the Arab public. Nothing more."

The man is crazy

Would you say that the Oslo accords were detrimental to the Palestinian people?

"I don't know which Oslo you are talking about. There are any number of Oslos among the Palestinian people. It is clear to all of us that Oslo is a solution that doesn't give the Palestinian people anything: It does not bring about the creation of an independent Palestinian leadership or a Palestinian state. The agreement does not even grant the right of return to areas of the Palestinian Authority and does not accord the Palestinians their right to Al-Quds a-Sharif [Jerusalem]. What is the Oslo agreement while the settlements exist? Or the bypass roads? It is the continuation of the Israeli occupation on the Palestinians' lands."

Is a peace agreement possible as part of which the settlements will be dismantled and Jerusalem divided, with Israel returning to the June 4, 1967 lines - but without the right of return for the Palestinian refugees?

"That is absolutely impossible. I want to be completely realistic. There are some five million refugees who have the right of return and no one has the right or the ability to prevent them from realizing that right."

The Western Wall is the holiest place in Judaism and Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest place in Islam. Why, in your view, don't the Jews have a right to the Temple Mount?

"That is an incorrect argument, a misleading argument. The Jews do not have a right of any kind in the Temple Mount area or to so much as one stone of Al-Aqsa Mosque. Researchers and archaeologists have already proved that. The Al-Buraq Wall [the Islamic name for the Western Wall] is not the western wall of the Temple. Unfortunately, Jewish extremists, in the name of religion, are exploiting feelings of Jews on this subject and trying to sell them lies."

But the Bible tells about the Temple and the Temple Mount. Is the book a forgery?

"We believe that the Bible was forged and it says so in the Koran. The issue of the Temple Mount and the Temple is not the only thing that was forged in the Bible."

What is your opinion of the commission headed by Justice Theodor Or, which is investigating the events of last October?

"The late lamented Or Commission ... Certainly the commission is doing important work, but that is not enough. I hoped that the Or Commission would be a true investigative commission, which would place the accused and the suspects on trial. I don't understand why the police officers who stated and explicitly confessed that they opened fire and wounded and killed people are not arrested. Why isn't that being done?"

Was what happened in the United States on September 11 an act of terrorism or of jihad?

"Your question suggests that you want to reach an answer before we know who was behind that action. Does the United States know who perpetrated the attack? Certainly not. And it is not I who say this, but the secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who declared that the U.S. does not yet have proof about whom perpetrated the attack."

But how do you see the attack?

"What do you expect me to say, as a Muslim, when I hear that the attack destroyed a large mosque in one of the Twin Towers, which served Muslims in the area for prayers, and especially the Friday prayers? The Islamic Movement issued a statement condemning the act."

What is your opinion of Osama bin Laden?

"Osama bin Laden disappointed all the academic research centers, which tried to explain and convince the world that poverty would generate acts of revenge. Osama bin Laden has a vast fortune. He has a budget that is larger than the budget of some countries. This shows that Osama bin Laden's cause is not a private matter, as he does not suffer from poverty. The U.S. needs to ask why it is the target of attacks and hostilities. Neither the Koran nor the religion of Islam contain any passage, anything at all against the U.S. or against Manhattan or against George Bush."

What is your view of bin Laden's desire to expel U.S. forces from the Persian Gulf?

"Osama bin Laden has the right to say what he said. If the U.S. discovers that Israeli diplomats are involved in hostile operations against it, what can it do? Wouldn't they be expelled? Didn't the U.S. do that with Pollard [Jonathan Pollard, now serving a prison term in the United States for spying for Israel]? So why shouldn't the enemies of Islam be expelled from the Gulf?"

What is your view of the suicide bombing at the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv last June, which killed 21 people?

"I have already been asked that question dozens of times. We have always said that we are against the killing of innocent people. These things will not stop until the Palestinian people gets its rights."

What is your opinion of the terrorist attack carried out in Nahariya by an individual who was identified with the Islamic Movement?

"I see no need to repeat over and over what I have already said: Our position on this subject is clear. We are against such things."

MK Ayub Kara, from the Likud, has called for the deportation of the family of the suicide bomber in Nahariya. What do you say to him?

"This is nothing new for Ayub Kara. We are already used to his bad actions and words. History will remember him for bursting into Al-Aqsa last year together with Sharon."

Have you heard about the suggestion that suicide terrorists be buried in pigskin in order to prevent them from entering paradise, as they believe?

"Of course, I have heard about it. I have a different suggestion: to wrap the Israeli occupation in pigskin and there will be no more suiciders and the situation will be normal."

Do 70 virgins await shahids - martyrs - in paradise?

"On this matter, we have proof. It is written in the Koran and in the Suna [the traditions about the life of Mohammed]. This matter is clear. The shahid receives from Allah six special things, including 70 virgins, no torment in the grave, and the choice of 70 members of his family and his confidants to enter paradise with him."

What do you think about Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual mentor of the Shas party?

"The man is crazy. I will let you in on a secret. About half a year ago, a third party tried to set up a meeting between me and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. I don't know if this person approached me in Rabbi Yosef's name. But my answer was unequivocal: I am not ready to meet with Ovadia Yosef unless he issues a public apology for what he said in condemnation of the Arabs."

What do you have to say about Salah Tarif, a Druze, as the first non-Jewish cabinet minister in Israel?

"The position held by Minister Tarif is of no benefit at all to the Arab sector. If the position is just for the sake of holding the position, then there is no need for the position."

What do you think of the terms "Northern Branch" and "Southern Branch" for the Islamic Movement?

"That is a despicable act by the Shin Bet and all the Israeli security services. It is another attempt to aggravate the dispute between us and the brothers in the Islamic Movement. The day will come when we will overcome all the crises and disputes and reunite in one Islamic Movement."

The example of Cat Stevens

Do you engage in sports?

"When I had the possibility in the past, I played basketball. Since I am tall, I was suitable for that sport. I also liked soccer. Unfortunately, I am too busy to follow these sports."

What is your view of Arabs playing on the Israeli national team?

"I have no problem with that. Sport is an open world with no borders, as long as the sporting spirit is maintained."

Are there any Jewish writers and intellectuals with whom you are familiar and whose work you read?

"Unfortunately, no. I barely have time to read the Arabic press. I read some of the commentaries in Ha'aretz, but unfortunately my ability to read the paper is limited, because of the language."

What is your opinion of the legislation now being discussed in the Knesset, which would grant Muslim women rights similar to those of Jewish women in matters of personal status?

"That bill is tantamount to a war on Islam. It is an attempt to dictate different, foreign values that are neither Muslim nor Palestinian values."

But why shouldn't Islamic women have the right to choose whether they want their case to be heard in a civil court or a sharia court?

"There is a difference between freedom, and damage and destruction under the slogan of freedom. We are in favor of freedom for women, which preserves their religious and national identity. We are against fake slogans that are called freedom. The bill would give civil courts the possibility of intervening in every Islamic matter. What we fear is that in the future there will also be intervention [by the Knesset] in the question of the Waqf [Muslim religious trust] lands. That will be a blow to Islam and no one can know what its consequences are liable to be."

How far can a woman progress, in your view?

"Women have no boundaries and I cannot create boundaries for women. I have the values of Islam and the Koran, by which I live. The role of the woman in Islam is the supplementary role to that of the man. The woman, as a mother, educates the next generation. The woman, as a Muslim, has an important role with respect to the future of the society: culture, economy, religion and every other subject."

What is your opinion of abortions?

"It is forbidden to have an abortion. That is like murdering a soul whose murder is forbidden by God. There is one special and exceptional possibility of performing an abortion - when the fetus constitutes a danger to the mother's life."

What do you think of murder to save the family honor?

"There is no such concept and we do not recognize this concept. There is no such thing as `losing the family honor' or of committing murder `for the sake of family honor.' These are contradictions. We have the family and the family has its honor, which has to be preserved. We have to ask those who talk about murder for the sake of the family honor - mainly feminist organizations - what they did to prevent the murder of family honor itself. Unfortunately, nothing at all has been done in this regard. On the contrary: Some of the people who invented this concept are encouraging anarchy in the society, because they don't know how to handle the matter.

"All those who claim that women have the right to do with their bodies as they please are implanting anarchy in the society. If we say that a woman's body is hers and that no one may harm it, that is correct. But the danger is that some people interpret this to mean that a woman can do whatever she likes with her body, without taking into consideration the Islamic and Arab values. As such, they are helping put the woman to death while she is still alive."

Recently some Arab rock groups have been set up in Israel, and Arab young people in Jewish cities, especially Haifa, are developing a distinctive leisure-time culture in clubs. What is your response?

"What I know is that the well-known singer Cat Stevens, who was a famous rock singer, reached a dead end with no way out. Despite what he built and did for himself from his rock songs, he finally reached the conclusion that he must seek his life anew. He converted to Islam, repented and finally called himself Yusuf Islam. The beautiful life and happiness are not found in nightclubs or in rock songs, but in faith and a return to religion. Therefore, for young people to go to those places is tantamount to committing suicide, and the day will come when they will return from their sinful ways and regret their actions."

Where do you go in your leisure time?

"Although I don't have much time, the leisure time of myself and my family is spent mainly in the destroyed villages and in what remains of the Islamic holy places after 1948."

Do you surf the Web?

"Yes, when I need to, when I send or receive mail."

What is your opinion of homosexuality?

"It is a crime. A great crime. Such phenomena signal the start of the collapse of every society. Those who believe in Allah know that behavior of that kind brings his wrath and is liable to cause the worst things to happen. There is no solution for this, unless the individual's faith is strengthened."n