The leader of Islamic Movement (Northern Branch), Sheikh Ra'ad Salah, was sentenced to nine months in prison yesterday for assaulting a policeman and taking part in a violent demonstration in February 2007 near the Temple Mount.

The Islamic Movement was demonstrating against renovation work in the area. The Jerusalem Magistrate's Court ruled that Salah had spit in the face of a border policeman, Yigal Zinger, telling Zinger: "You are racist murderers. You have no honor."

Salah had refused to cooperate with proceedings in the trial. He and his lawyer have said the real criminal act was the work done at a holy site, which included construction of an earthen ram p leading up to the mount.

In the sentencing, Judge Yitzhak Shimoni said he had the impression that Salah's intention "as he expressed it himself, was to harm not only the policeman but all that he represented regarding the law and its maintenance, as well as the State of Israel itself, which as far as [Salah] is concerned is the real criminal."

The judge said there are limits to freedom of expression and that Salah's "violent conduct, in violation of the law, by attacking a policeman who symbolizes the rule of law" is not protected by law. Shimoni also said Salah's laughter during Zinger's testimony was held against him.

In addition to the jail term, Salah was sentenced to six months' probation and must pay NIS 7,500 in compensation to Zinger. This will be the second stint behind bars for Salah, who was previously sentenced to three and a half years in prison for contact with an enemy agent as a result of contacts with Hamas.

Salah said yesterday he had no interest in appealing the court's decision because he does not recognize the legitimacy of the trial. He said he has no faith in the Israeli justice system. He told Al-Shams radio in Nazareth that Judge Shimoni's sentence "was not punishment but rather a political attempt to discourage anyone who calls Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem into question."

Salah said Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount are under Israeli occupation, for which steps must be taken to remove. He denied attacking the border policeman or splitting at him. "As a Muslim who believes in the values of Islam, I don't even spit at animals," he said. "I and others tried to repel serious damage to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and that's why they are punishing me."

Salah's lawyer, Haled Zabarqa, said he and his client would study the court's decision and decide within a few days whether to file an appeal with the district court. If the sentence is not appealed, Salah is to begin his prison term on February 28.

The chairman of the Balad party, MK Jamal Zahalka, said the court's decision was "motivated by political revenge and was aimed at political persecution. In its decision, the court became a tool in the hands of the police and the Shin Bet [security service]. The police harass the Arab community and its leaders and do everything possible to harm the legitimate right to protest."

He said the court's decision not only harms Salah but "the entire Arab public that is at his side in the fight against damage to the Al-Aqsa Mosque."

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch plans to brief local and foreign Arab journalists later this month in a bid to "balance" the media coverage of conflicts between the police and the Israeli Arab community.

According to a spokesman, Aharonovitch intends to address Salah's arrest, clashes with Arab worshippers on the Temple Mount and the increase in crime and violence in the Arab community. He is expected to tell the journalists that he sees cooperation with the Arab public as vital in dealing with crimes such as arson, illegal construction as well as drug and alcohol abuse.