The political echelon has ordered the defense establishment, police and prosecution to take broad immediate action against the leadership of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

Several factors explain the move - increasing worry about the involvement of movement activists in aiding Palestinian terror organizations and Hezbollah and the fact that movement activists who hold Israeli citizenship have participated in terror attacks.

The Islamic Movement in Israel, particularly its more extreme northern branch under the leadership of Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, has been targeted for some time by defense agencies.

More than two years ago, high-ranking Shin Bet officials expressed support for outlawing the northern branch. That step has never been taken for various reasons, but support for the move is growing among ministers whose offices deal with the movement and in the defense establishment.

Outlawing the movement would mean it could not hold rallies or issue publications and its offices would be closed in Israeli Arab townships. The movement would be barred from running candidates for public office.

For some time, security sources have claimed that the movement's leadership has been involved in incitement against the state and its official institutions. But the greatest fear is the movement serving as a channel for funds from overseas and the Arab sector to go to Islamic organizations in the territories.

The funds are said to be used for humanitarian purposes, but the security establishment has evidence that much money ends up in the hands of terror groups.

For the first time, there is intelligence information about senior Islamic Movement officials actively helping terrorism. In the last two years, particularly since the outbreak of the intifada and the October 2000 riots in the Arab sector, there has been a sharp rise in the number of Israeli Arabs arrested as suspects in terror activities. Some have been prosecuted and are now serving long sentences.

In several cases, the suspects were members of the Islamic Movement. In most cases, the suspects were paid to transport suicide bombers from the territories into Israel to their targets. But there have been cases in which Israeli Arabs provided help in preparing terror attacks, collecting intelligence for Hezbollah.

In September 1999, four members of the Islamic Movement tried to conduct terror operations aboard buses in Haifa and Tiberias, which were orchestrated by Hamas activists in the territories. Three of the four were killed in the attempted attacks.

In September 2001, a number of Umm al-Fahm residents were arrested after they were recruited into the Hamas branch in Nablus to conduct suicide attacks. Inter alia, the cell plotted to bomb a Hadera branch of Hapoalim bank.

That same month, a member of the Islamic Movement from Abu Snan in the Galilee conducted a suicide attack on the Nahariya train station, killing three people. Other Israeli Arabs have also knowingly helped out in terror attacks, says the Shin Bet.