Ra'ad Salah's Court of Many Colors

Nir Baram
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Nir Baram

This article is part of a special edition of Haaretz, to mark Israel's book week.

In the sweaty heat of Ashkelon, around the courthouse that looks like a little concrete block, a group of Jews with Israeli flags at their center are shouting slogans against Israel's Arabs, against travel to Turkey and calling the head of the Islamic Movement's Northern Branch, Ra'ad Salah, a "terrorist."

Four Arab Israelis arrested during the Israel Defense Forces' raid on the Gaza flotilla are about to be brought to court. They are charged with attacks causing grievous physical injury, conspiracy, illegal use of weapons and attacking a public servant.

Nir Bar’am speaking to members of Sheikh Ra’ad Salah’s family in Ashkelon court.Credit: Ilan Assayag

One of those under arrest is Ra'ad Salah. Two High Court of Justice petitions have been presented challenging the legality of the arrest of the four. One by attorney Avigdor Feldman and the other by the Arab rights organization Adallah and others.

According to the state, the petitions "twisted the truth," and the threatened "lynch" of IDF soldiers "forced them to take the required steps to protect their lives ... "

The legal wrangling is of little interest to the enthusiastic protesters, mostly from Ashkelon Academic College. "These are people who have felt the Qassams personally," the sharped-tonged organizer of the protest, Likud activist Elad Zamir says. "Today they stand here to say that if we don't demonstrate against the weapons going to Gaza, those weapons will be turned on us, on Sderot, Netivot and Be'er Sheva."

His friends urge him not to speak to Haaretz. "Well, I'm not exactly from the paper," I squirm, "so he can talk to me."

While his friends debate the point, Salah's mother approaches the courthouse. The Jews run toward her, screaming anti-Arab slogans. The mother, an energetic 75-year-old, responds in kind. The police separate the old woman from the group of Jews.

I follow her to the courtroom and ask her why she cursed them. At first she refuses to answer. Her interpreter says she doesn't believe in the Jewish media - they always twist her words. That is a claim reiterated by all the Arabs I spoke with; that the media has over the years become a slave of the establishment.

A few minutes later she agrees to talk after all. We go back to Monday morning. For a whole day she believed her son was dead or seriously injured. "I am proud of my son and support the flotilla with all my heart. We have to break the blockade on Gaza, get them food and medicine. My son is a very honest man. Therefore there is great solidarity with him among the Arabs."

The journalist from Sawt al-Haq, the newspaper that represents the Islamic Movement, says how the rumor started that Salah was dead. "Somebody who looked like the sheikh was mortally injured and brought to the hospital. Meanwhile, MK Talab al-Sana called [Defense Minister] Ehud Bark to find out about Salah, but Barak didn't answer him. When they delayed the family at the hospital and didn't let them see the injured man, the rumors started to fly."

Outside the courtroom it is clear the flotilla was just a smokescreen. The real issue was, again, erupting like poisonous lava, Jews and Arabs in the State of Israel. The Jews outside represent a variety of opinions united in their Jewish patriotism and the sense that the Arabs of Israel must be taught a lesson in loyalty, and that "the whole world is against us."

MK al-Sana was sitting alone in the shadowy corridors. "Ehud Barak, captain of the pirates, acts like he's Captain Hook, and the whole Israeli society cheers him." When he says "Israeli society" he means the Jews. This rhetoric, which I heard from all the Arabs I spoke to, shows their alienation from Israel. The enemies of Israeli society "are all the non-Jews in and outside Israel."

Jafar Farah, director of the Arab rights center Mossawa, runs in and out of the courthouse encouraging his friends. "I call on the Jewish public, and there are not many Arabs who appeal to the Jewish public - wake up! ... You can't live with a million and a half Arabs who haven't attacked you even once since the establishment of the state. How will you live in the Middle East with 400 million Arabs?"

Clearly, Israeli Arab leaders feel the whole world is supporting them. Since they can expect nothing more from Israel, only the international playing field remains.

When Salah enters the courtroom, his legs shackled, but smiling calmly, his admirers stand on tiptoe and knock on the courthouse windows. Even among the journalists there is tension. Two, a Jew and an Arab, trade energetic curses. Things are calm in the room, because the discussion revolves around the minutia of the arrest, with the defense claiming that the accused were held for more than 24 hours without judicial oversight, and therefore must be immediately released, and the question under debate is whether they were arrested still at sea, or on land.

The judge ordered Salah to be remanded in custody for a further eight days.

The writer's latest novel, "Anashim Tovim" was published by Am Oved.

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