Founder of Islamic Movement in Israel, Abdallah Nimr Darwish, Dies at 69

By creating institutions like mosques and welfare agencies, Darwish's movement became a dominant force in Arab society in Israel

Four religious leaders appear on Channel 1 in December 2006. From left to right: Druze community leader Sheikh Muwafaq Tarif, Islamic Movement founder Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Darwish, Archbishop and Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah, and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
Tomer Appelbaum

The founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Darwish, died early Sunday morning at the age of 69 after a long illness.

Darwish was born and raised in Kafr Qasem, an Arab city east of Tel Aviv. He studied at an Islamic college in the West Bank city of Nablus and began working as an Islamic preacher in the early 1970s. In 1979 he established Usrat al-Jihad ("Family of Jihad"), an organization that later became the Islamic Movement in Israel. The movement’s ideology is based on the teachings of the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna.

Alongside providing welfare services to the Muslim community, Usrat al-Jihad also attempted to orchestrate an attack in Israel. A number of its members, including Darwish, were arrested and spent time in prison. He stepped up his activities after his release, creating institutions such as mosques and social service agencies and turned the Islamic Movement into a political movement and a dominant force in Arab society in Israel. Its influence rose following the decision to have the movement's members run in local elections, which they won in several major towns, including Kafr Qasem and Umm al-Fahm.

Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Darwish's funeral in Kafr Qasem, May 14, 2017.

The movement split into two factions in 1996 due to major differences of opinion over whether to integrate into Israeli politics and even run for the Knesset, a step that Darwish supported. Following the split, Sheikh Ra’ad Salah assumed leadership of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, which has been considered more radical than the southern branch, where Darwish remained at the helm. In 1998, Darwish announced that he was leaving public political life, but he remained a figure a stature as well as a spiritual and religious authority.

During the last years of his life, Darwish suffered from serious respiratory problems. He was taken to the hospital over the weekend and died early Sunday morning. His funeral took place on Sunday in Kafr Qasem.

Islamic Movement Chairman Sheikh Hamad Abu Da’abes issued a statement announcing Darwish’s death. It said that from the beginning of his career, Darwish had been connected to preaching based on the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood's Banna. The statement called him the "twin brother" of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin but went on to state that Darwish had adopted a pragmatic approach that shunned extremism, calling for Palestinians to embrace tolerance.

Despite the ideological split in the Islamic movement, the northern branch's Salah also released a statement on Sunday mourning Darwish’s death.