The Shin Bet security service has confirmed for the first time that it regularly intervenes in the appointment of Muslim clergymen to public office, Haaretz has learned.

The issue surfaced after the state recently declined to appoint Sheikh Ahmed Abu Awaja to serve as Imam at Jaffa's Jabalya mosque, even though Abu Awaja was the only certified candidate to fit the threshold requirements. When he appealed to the Tel Aviv Labor Court against the decision not to hire him, the district prosecutor's office told the court that "according to the assessments of the Shin Bet, the claimant's appointment to serve as an imam on behalf of the Ministry of Interior may jeopardize security and peace in Jaffa, especially in view of the sensitivity of the delicate relationship between the city's Jewish and Muslim populations."

When queried by Haaretz for further explanations, the Shin Bet said: "Abu Awaja is the head of the northern Islamic Movement in Jaffa. According to the power vested in the Shin Bet, the service has supplied the Interior Ministry and the Civil Service Commission with information showing that Abu Awaja has had a long involvement in hostile activity, which manifested itself in incitement against the state and its Jewish citizens."

The ideology of the Islamic Movement is closely related to that of its mother organization - the Muslim Brotherhood. The northern branch, which is considered more radical than the southern branch, does not recognize Israel's right to exist, with the ultimate goal of the state being replaced by an Islamic state. The branch has declared its preparedness to use Israel's institutions to satisfy immediate needs.

Abu Awaja, 34, started acting as imam in Jaffa at the age of 19, making him the youngest imam in Israel - and some say in the entire Middle East. The married father of four children has been acting as de facto imam at Jabalya mosque for the past two years, since the last imam passed away.

Jaffa - which has a growing population of 16,000 Arabs, most of whom are Muslim, and a shrinking population of 30,000 Jews - has eight mosques, six of which are active. Three are publicly funded by the Interior Ministry, which selects imams by government tender. The imam administers the five daily prayers at the mosque, and serves as a religious authority based on Muslim scriptures.

Abu Awaja's attorneys say that after their client applied for the tender and before he took the entrance exam - which he passed - Abu Awaja was summoned for a meeting with a Shin Bet agent at Jaffa's police station.

At the meeting, the agent questioned the applicant about the subjects of his sermons and events he attended. When Abu Awaja asked the agent whether there was any point in going ahead with the application, the agent advised him to "do what he thinks best," and informed him that the identity of the imam at Jabalya will ultimately be determined the Shin Bet.

Abu Awaja says he has been preaching for 15 years and has delivered hundreds or thousands of sermons, during which, he says, he has never preached in favor of violence. "I have called on people to act within the confines of the law. The Shin Bet's interference in my nomination is political persecution, and it's been going on for many years," Abu Awaja told Haaretz yesterday.

The court is expected to rule on Abu Awaja's case tomorrow and decide whether to instruct the Ministry of Interior to recognize him as winner of the tender and forbid the ministry to hire anyone else for the job, or to allow the ministry to reissue the tender until a final verdict on Abu Awaja's case is delivered.

His attorneys say Abu Awaja has a clean criminal record, and that his only "sin" is to identify with the northern Islamic Movement.