Arabs in Israel Fear Outlawing Islamic Movement Is Just the Beginning

The feeling in the Arab community is that the cabinet decision stems from the desire to satisfy hostile public opinion.

Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the northern wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel, at the Jerusalem District Court, November 18, 2015.
Emil Salman

The decision to outlaw the Islamic Movement’s northern branch came as no surprise to the Arab community; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some of his ministers have been pushing for it publicly for a long time now. But the decision’s timing and the perceived motives behind it have lit warning lights in Arab society as a whole.

The message that emerged on Tuesday from the bureaus of the prime minister and the public security minister was clear — outlawing the northern branch is part of the international fight against terror perpetrated by Islamic State, Al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. This message was certainly received with understanding by the Israeli public as well as in the West, when Paris and the rest of the world are licking their wounds following a criminal terror attack. Israel perceives itself now as part of the family of nations fighting terror, in light of the wave of Palestinian terror attacks of recent months. These stem, according to Israeli leaders, from warnings issued by the northern branch of the supposed danger to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and not from the despair and anger accumulating among Palestinian youth as a result of the continued occupation.

In Arab society people see things differently. They believe that the outlawing of the northern branch is persecution intended to blame the government’s security-related and diplomatic failures on the Islamic Movement, which has been waging the “Al-Aqsa is in danger” campaign for more than a decade under the watchful eye of law enforcement. Anyone who knows politics in Arab society knows full well that the Islamic Movement does not act randomly; every one of its institutions and actions is closely overseen, all in accordance with Israeli law. Some of the positions the movement expresses sound extreme to Jews, as they do to many in Arab society itself, but from there to outlawing it is a big jump.

The authorities have never hesitated to arrest and prosecute Sheikh Raed Salah and other movement leaders, which has landed some of them in prison. Salah himself is now waiting for a Supreme Court ruling on his conviction for incitement and the 11-months’ imprisonment to which he was sentenced. Thus, the state has the tools to deal with the Islamic Movement in cases where there is real suspicion of a breach of the law. In recent weeks, it has been reported that the security establishment is not enthusiastic over the outlawing of the movement; some officials say they prefer that it operate in the spotlight rather than underground.

So the feeling in the Arab community is that the cabinet decision stems from the desire to satisfy hostile public opinion. That is the starting point that guides leaders of the Arab public, including the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which has declared a general strike for Thursday, and is planning a large demonstration on Saturday.

This is not because of their support for the Islamic Movement or its religious messages, but rather because the movement is an inseparable part of the Arab public, because its work includes social welfare, because the monitoring committee finds the state’s decision anti-democratic and antagonistic to freedom of expression. In the background is the fear that this is only the first step and that under the current right-wing government, and in a public atmosphere that encourages anti-Arab incitement, not only will the Islamic Movement’s northern branch be outlawed, but, effectively, so will the entire Arab public.