The decision to outlaw the northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement has been under discussion by the diplomatic-security cabinet ever since the wave of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank erupted early last month. The fact that it was finally implemented this week is no accident; it’s connected to events overseas.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to strike while the iron is hot, seizing an opportunity to crack down on Palestinian terror at a time when global attention is also focused on Islamist terror, albeit far from here. When the Western world is intensifying its battle against Islamic State following terror attacks in Sinai, Beirut and Paris, Netanyahu won’t be criticized overseas for declaring war on Islamist zealots here at home.
The decision to outlaw the northern branch was forced on the anti-terror professionals by the government. The Shin Bet wasn’t enthusiastic about the move, partly due to fear it would inflame Israeli Arabs and that Salah and his allies would switch to underground activity that would be harder to monitor.
But it seems the Shin Bet’s reservations, which were never codified into a clear recommendation against the decision, also had another reason: The agency has traditionally preferred to focus on “hard” terrorism — making bombs, recruiting suicide bombers, organizing shooting attacks and such. Efforts to combat “soft” terrorism, like blocking funding channels, monitoring sermons in mosques and shutting down charities, involve long, complex operations that divert resources from fighting hard terror, especially when the targets are Israeli citizens. Thus it’s no surprise that the agency had qualms, even beyond the question of whether it’s justified to place such severe restrictions on an organization to which almost 10,000 Israelis belong.
The Islamic Movement was born in the same incubator as Hamas — namely the Muslim Brotherhood. For years, the movement’s northern branch has functioned as a sort of younger stepsister to Hamas. In addition to systematically inciting against Israel and pouring fuel on the Temple Mount bonfire, its leaders have long maintained ties with the leaders of Hamas in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and overseas.
The head of the northern branch, Sheikh Raed Salah, has led the “Al-Aqsa is in danger” campaign for almost two decades. Over the last two years, he has stepped up both his rhetoric and his activities, thereby fueling anger over the Temple Mount — to which right-wing Jewish activists have also contributed — among both Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.
Salah and his fellows directed the Mourabitoun and Mourabitat, groups of male and female Muslims, respectively, who worked in shifts to harass Jewish visitors to the Mount, and who were paid by sources connected to the northern branch. The state outlawed both those groups in September.
Organizations affiliated with the northern branch also served as pipelines for transferring money to Hamas in the West Bank, including from Islamic charities in Turkey. Among the beneficiaries of this money were families of Hamas members killed or imprisoned by Israel.
According to intelligence shown to the ministers, Salah and several other northern branch officials were in contact with senior Hamas officials in Gaza and the West Bank. Often, the northern branch and Hamas-affiliated organizations in the West Bank used the same lawyers and accountants. The argument is that both fall under the same ideological umbrella.
Television stations broadcast dramatic footage on Tuesday of police handing out closure orders to organizations affiliated with the northern branch. But those with long memories might recall that this isn’t the first time. More than a decade ago, at the height of the second intifada, a similar police operation took place, and Salah and his associates were arrested on suspicion of transferring funds to Hamas.
At that time, the northern branch was targeted by a joint forum of the intelligence services that was trying to crack down on “soft” terrorism — charities or companies affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In recent years, this forum’s activities have waned, but renewed thought is now being given to how to strengthen its work, and which intelligence agency should lead it.
This week Netanyahu wanted a dramatic step, and he got one. But how useful it will prove will depend in part on whether the state maintains its pressure on the northern branch over time — something it has failed to do in the past.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the fifth shooting attack of the last 10 days took place Tuesday evening. In contrast, there have been no stabbing or car-ramming attacks in the last few days. A shift toward shooting attacks could ultimately prove more lethal than the wave of stabbings has been. But the army says it’s too soon to declare that the trend has definitely changed.