Umm al-Fahm mayor Dr. Suleiman Agabariyah glanced worriedly at his watch and at his brother in law, Sheikh Ra'ad Salah. It was half an hour before Salah was due to head back to police custody, and a huge crowd was still lined up to kiss and hug Salah.
Agabariyah stood on a chair and begged, "Fellows, for God's sake, sit down, the sheikh will bless you, please, with only a handshake."
Thousands yesterday attended the funeral of Salah Suleiman Abu Shakra, father of Salah, the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, a day and a half after the police crackdown on the movement's leaders in Umm al-Fahm.
The funeral turned into a mass protest against the arrest of the movement leader and 14 other activists suspected of money laundering for Hamas.
After the religious ceremonies, hundreds of worshippers streamed out of the mosque and merged with the swelling crowd outside. The coffin had already been taken toward the cemetery, but everyone was waiting for the son of the deceased, the arrested leader who was given a few hours off, out of police custody, to attend the funeral of his father, a 30-year veteran of the police force. Salah's two brothers are also policemen.
"Allah Akbar," someone shouted as soon as the sheikh appeared at the mosque door. "Allah Akbar," roared the crowd, whose fury at its leader's arrest was charged like an electric current during the prayer session. They thronged to the cemetery chanting, "With our spirit and blood, we'll redeem you, Ra'ad."
Many in Umm al-Fahm yesterday were convinced that the affair was "making a mountains out of a mole hill." People kept saying that at the funeral, and quoting National Fraud Squad commander Miri Golan, who told a press conference yesterday there was no evidence tying the detainees directly to Hamas terrorist activity.
"We've had accusations of financing before and they ended with nothing," one resident said, referring to the four times over the past eight years that the police closed down the movement's offices.
Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr and other well-known Arab public figures and leaders joined the funeral procession. Shawki Hatib, chairman of the Supreme National Monitoring Committee denounced the arrests as harming a legitimate political party, said he is convinced the charges against Ra'ad will not stick.
Salah Abu Shukra was a police pensioner and two of his sons are policemen. His funeral was an opportunity for many to see his son, the arrested leader, and show their support. The father's death was described repeatedly as a symbolic event, because Salah was arrested at his bedside in Hadera's Hillel Yaffeh Hospital. For the people of Umm al-Fahm, Salah's devotion to his father was in stark contrast to the humiliation he suffered when he was arrested.
"That was a brutal act," said Husam Abbas of al-Babur restaurant. "Imagine what would have happened if they arrested Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in the middle of the night, in his pajamas, at his father's deathbed."
The police decided to let Salah attend the funeral without escorts, for four hours. No speeches were made and he refused to answer journalists' questions, as ordered by the police, but his attorney said he was "in good spirits."
Among the thousands at the cemetery an imposing man with a majestic appearance and a dark cape stood out. He was Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur, head of the Islamic Movement's more moderate southern branch, who came to pay respects to his rival. "The more one examines the suspicions, the more one finds the proceedings against Salah are artificial and have no grounds in reality," he said. "They don't distinguish between Muslims and convicted felons," he added.
The northern branch distributed a circular saying the arrests were timed to correspond with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit and was in keeping with Israel's "dream to take over the Al-Aqsa Mosque."
The funeral was an unplanned prologue for a series of protest acts the movement will spearhead tomorrow and on Saturday.