Behind the Scenes of Israel's Decision to Outlaw Islamic Movement's Northern Branch

According to a senior Jerusalem official, Israel Police didn't believe banning the movement would lead to escalation and rioting. This was one of the key points of contention between the police and Shin Bet.

Sheik Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, leaves the Jerusalem district court, October 27, 2015.
Reuters

According to an intelligence assessment the police presented to the security cabinet, the outlawing of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, a decision which was made public on Tuesday, will not lead to escalation and extensive rioting, a senior official in Jerusalem familiar with discussions said. According to the official, this assessment was one of the key points of contention between the police and the Shin Bet security service.

Over the past few months, since the start of the terror wave, at least five cabinet meetings have been held over the possibility of outlawing the northern branch of the Islamic Movement. The senior official said that during the discussions, the police supported the move and the Shin Bet objected to it. The police said that outlawing the movement’s northern branch would allow the authorities to take the fullest extent of action against it, whereas the Shin Bet said that action against the northern branch and its leaders should be on the basis of evidence. “Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen explained during the cabinet meetings that the movement is very careful and walks a fine line to make it legally harder to catch them involved in terror,” the senior official said.

One reason for the disagreement between the two agencies’ intelligence assessments was the effect of outlawing the northern branch on the Arab community. The Shin Bet said the move could lead to unrest, strengthen the status of the northern branch and even cause it to work underground instead of openly and publicly. However, the police claimed that even if such a decision was protested, it would not lead to riots. Ahead of some of the cabinet meetings, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan toured northern and southern police districts, where district commanders also said that outlawing the movement would not lead to unrest.

“The Shin Bet was not enthusiastic over this, and on the other hand did not fight it,” a senior official in Jerusalem said. “The police was more interested in pushing it through.”

A number of possible actions were raised during the meetings: a gradual move, starting from declaring the Muslim Brotherhood, through which money flows to the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, a banned group; a partial move only against the heads of the northern branch; and the outlawing of the northern branch altogether.

The most comprehensive move was decided upon in order to allow the police and the Shin Bet the maximum tools to act against the organization, said the senior official. “We wanted to act similarly to the way we did with the 'price tag' activists,” the official said, referring to Jewish extremists who commit anti-Arab hate crimes, “to define the whole character of the activities as prohibited so that even if they change their name, it will still be possible to relate to what they are doing as illegal.”

Not all 10,000 Arab citizens believed to be members of the Islamic Movement's northern branch are acting against the law, said senior officials in Jerusalem who were involved in the move. Despite the decision's sweeping nature, there are relatively few offenders.

“Clearly there is no intention of putting every member on trial and there is no interest in closing down a body if it is only involved in welfare or health activities — there are also things like that there and they are all right,” the senior official said. “The problem is that in the law you can’t distinguish each element with tweezers — the police and the Shin Bet will decide where it is proper to act and the priority will of course be against incitement over the Temple Mount and similar things,” he added.

A great deal of intelligence has been gathered about the northern branch of the Islamic Movement over the past few months. After one cabinet meeting, where it was decided to work toward outlawing the group on the basis of evidence, senior Shin Bet officials realized that the move would be made despite their objections. From that moment on, they changed their approach and began to work harder to obtain the necessary information.

The evidence, intelligence and other materials that went into the assessment that the northern branch could be outlawed were supplied by the Shin Bet, said a security official. “This is work that took a long time and required the investment of many intelligence and research resources,” he said. “Various units of the Shin Bet worked to collect, analyze and put together the relevant and updated information that indicates the danger of the northern branch,” he added.

Over the past weeks, particularly the last two weeks, between the decision and making it public, the Shin Bet and the police gathered a great deal of material about collaboration between the northern branch of the Islamic Movement and Hamas, especially in Jerusalem. One of the key pieces of information came out in the interrogation of one of the Palestinian youths who threw stones at the vehicle driven by Alexander Levlovich, who was killed as a result.

Direct evidence emerged that interrogation of a connection between the northern branch and decisions to commit terror attacks, the senior official said. “Levlovich’s killer said in the interrogation that he had returned from an event held by the northern branch and after he heard the speeches, he was persuaded that Al-Aqsa Mosque was in danger and therefore he should go out and throw stones.”