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The head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel on Wednesday said he did not recognize the prison sentence handed down to him by a Jerusalem court earlier in the day, but that he was not afraid to "be behind bars" for the sake of the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Sheikh Raed Salah was given a nine-month jail sentence for his role in an affray, and for assaulting a policeman during disturbances at the Temple Mount in the Old City in Jerusalem.

As well as housing the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Temple Mount is also the location of the ancient Jewish temple. Salah was arrested in February 2007after protests over planned improvement works at the site.

According to the court, Salah spat in the face of a policeman, saying: "You are all racists and murderers, you have no respect."

In his summing up, Judge Yizthak Shimmoni said:

"It is my impression that the intention of the accused - and this is confirmed by his own statements - was to insult not just the policeman in question but everything he stood for: the law, its enforcement and the State of Israel itself, which in his eyes was the real 'criminal'.

"Freedom of expression merits special legislative protection. But this freedom has accepted limits and violent behavior in defiance of the law, such as an attack on a representative of the law, does not come within its scope."

In addition to nine months' incarceration, the court sentenced Salah to six months' suspended sentence and ordered him to pay NIS 7,500 in damages to the policeman.

Jamal Zahalka, an Israeli Arab MK for the Balad party, condemned the ruling.

"The motive here is political revenge and the objective is political persecution," he said. "With this decision the court has made itself an instrument of the police and security services. The police are harassing the Arab public and Arab public life and are doing everything in their power to erode the legitimate right to protest.

"This is an attack not just on the Sheikh himself but against the entire Arab community that stands beside him in the struggle to prevent harm to the al-Aqsa mosque."

Zahalka called for an emergency sitting of the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, an independent body which represents Israel's Arabs population, to discuss the issue.

The verdict drew praise from the Minister for Internal Security, Yitzhak Aharonovitch.

"This is a message to anyone who shows contempt for the the law and in particular to those who have attempted to harm law enforcement officers. No one has the right to threaten their safety," he said.