Foreign Policy Essay

Why Israel Outlawed the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement

By Lawrence Rubin
Sunday, December 6, 2015, 10:44 AM

Editor’s Note: An increasingly important segment of Israel's Arab citizenry is tied to the Islamic Movement, a branch of which Israel banned in November. The decision was controversial: not only did it elicit protests among Israeli Arabs, but security officials also criticized it as a mistake. Lawrence Rubin of the Georgia Institute of Technology dissects this decision, describing the Islamic Movement in Israel and explaining the politics of the ban.

 

Why Israel’s Islamic Movement was Outlawed

On November 17th, the Israeli government outlawed the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement and subsequently shut down 17 organizations and affiliated charities in a number of cities across Israel. After deeming activities related to the organization criminal, authorities seized computers, files, and confiscated funds from various offices. Three things might strike the outside observer as a bit bizarre: 1) that there is an Islamic Movement in Israel; 2) that it had been operating openly such that there was more than one branch; and (3) that it took more than three decades to ban at least part of a movement that has ideological roots in the Muslim Brotherhood and close relations with Hamas. Why did Israel choose to ban the movement now, and what is the broader significance of this move?

 

Who and what is the Islamic Movement in Israel?

The origins of the Islamic Movement in Israel can be traced to the early 1970s. As I previously discussed in a paper for the Brookings Institution, the movement’s founder, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, sought to bring Arab citizens of Israel back to Islam. The Movement draws its support from mostly Arab-Muslim citizens of Israel and, as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, it seeks to build an Islamic society. In the early 1980s, upon his release from a short stay in prison for involvement in terrorist activities, Darwish changed the course of this nascent political and religious movement by providing social services such as health care, religious education, public works, and childcare. The Movement later became one of the most important forces in local Arab politics by winning every local election that it contested in 1989, including five mayoralties. The Movement split in the mid-1990s when a hardline faction did not accept the majority’s decision to run for national elections in the Israeli parliament. Led by Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, this faction, later called the Northern Branch by others, claimed it would not legitimize the state by participating in an Israeli national institution.

In an effort to strengthen Arabs’ religious as well as national (Palestinian) identity, an important aim of the Movement is to protect and restore holy places in Israel, including cemeteries, places of worship, and of course, the Haram Al-Sharif, also known as the Temple Mount. In particular, al-Aqsa mosque is the mobilizing symbol of the struggle whereby Jerusalem, at least initially, was both the battlefield and the cause of the violent unrest. Since the split in the movement almost twenty years ago, the charismatic Sheikh Salah has used the slogan “al-Aqsa is in danger” as a rallying cry to mobilize followers, as well as an emotive device to attract financial support from the Muslim world. Salah’s calls of “al-Aqsa fi Khatar” refer to what he, his supporters, and many sympathizers believe is the “Judaification” of the Temple Mount. They claim that archeological activities under and around this holy site are aimed at threatening its physical existence. The Islamic movement sees the increasing assertiveness of Jewish religious activists, who are pushing for more religious access to the Temple Mount, as further evidence that there is a plot to take over these Muslim holy places for the purpose of building a third Temple and that the state backs these efforts.

 

Sheikh Raed Salah in the Spotlight

Now seems to be “Salah’s moment.” The charismatic, 57 year-old, three-time former mayor of Umm al-Fahm has positioned himself to be the unchallenged leader of the Islamic Movement during the recent violence. Arab politicians and community leaders have rallied around him and the controversy seems to boost his stature.  He was previously convicted for his links to Hamas and for contact with an Iranian agent, and also served jail time for assaulting a police officer. Most recently, in October, he was sentenced to eleven months in prison on incitement charges. A short time into the current wave of Palestinian stabbing and attacks, which many have called the “knife intifada,” the Israeli government banned two groups funded by Salah’s Northern Branch, the Mourabitoun and Mourabitat. The purpose of these men’s and women’s organizations, respectively, is to protect Haram al-Sharif from those who seek to desecrate it.

Israeli cabinet-level discussions about outlawing the Islamic Movement intensified during the second intifada, especially after the release of the Or Commission’s report. This inquiry, which aimed to investigate the killing of 12 Arab protesters, criticized the state’s historic marginalization of Israeli-Arabs as well as Salah’s role in inciting violent protests. During the current wave of violence, Israeli leaders have again accused Sheikh Salah of incitement and of encouraging Palestinian violence against Israelis. Although he has not personally directed the attacks against Israelis, he has called for al-Aqsa to be defended “in spirit and blood.” Lastly, these recent trends should also be seen against the backdrop of Salah’s annual al-Aqsa festivals, which attract bigger crowds than any other event in the Arab sector.

Now seems to be “Salah’s moment.” The charismatic, 57 year-old, three-time former mayor of Umm al-Fahm has positioned himself to be the unchallenged leader of the Islamic Movement during the recent violence. 

 

The Politics of Security

The decision to outlaw the Northern Branch seems to have been based on political calculations, not necessarily security interests. As mentioned previously, this issue has come up a number of times. In May 2014, Prime Minister Netanyahu opened discussions with his cabinet about banning the movement but it was blocked by the Ministry of Justice. In June, Netanyahu said he would move to outlaw the Northern Branch after a rally it sponsored called for the kidnapping of soldiers. During and after the Gaza War, MK Avigor Liberman initiated legislative efforts to ban the Northern Branch.

Naturally, many of the same arguments for and against the ban were made this time around too. The argument the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, has made in the past is that banning the Northern Branch would make it more difficult to monitor them and could cause (greater) unrest among Arab citizens in Israel and among West Bank Palestinians. For this reason, the Shin Bet, in opposition to the Israel Police, opposed the current ban. The argument in favor of banning the Movement is that there is some benefit to seizing some of its resources--resources that enable an activism and mobilization that could lead to terrorist attacks. The ban also sends a strong message about Israel’s redlines, especially related to the group’s financial activities and links to groups like Hamas. The government’s official statement is that the organization threatens public order, incites to violence and racism, colludes with Hamas and harasses Jewish and non-Muslim citizens who want to visit the Temple Mount.  Netanyahu’s security cabinet decided to crackdown when they could point to a direct connection between incitement, activities on the Temple Mount, and the violence against Israeli citizens.  

This decision is also driven by rising political threats to Netanyahu stemming from his inability to provide day-to-day security to a terrorized Israeli polity. Netanyahu faces growing pressure to provide Israelis with some sense of security. In early October, a whopping 73 percent of the Israeli public was dissatisfied with how Netanyahu had responded to the violence. In fact, in the same poll, the respondents thought Avigor Liberman, the chair of Yisrael Beitaynu Party, and Netanyahu’s main political rival, could do a better job of providing security. Naftali Bennett (Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi) finished ahead of Netanyahu, and close behind him was Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi. There is little question that Netanyahu has faced pressure both from his right flank and from other security figures to institute tougher security measures. This stance is particularly damaging to Netanyahu, who has claimed he provides real security to Israel. Netanyahu is likely aware that this wave of violence has the potential to erode his legitimacy, just as the first intifada diminished Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s standing when he lost to the Labor Party, led by General Yitzhak Rabin, in 1992.

The argument the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, has made in the past is that banning the Northern Branch would make it more difficult to monitor them and could cause (greater) unrest among Arab citizens in Israel and among West Bank Palestinians. For this reason, the Shin Bet, in opposition to the Israel Police, opposed the current ban.

Amid growing pressure from the international community over settlements, including the EU’s recent decision to label products as “made in settlements,” the Paris attacks provided Netanyahu an opportunity to frame all forms of terrorism as the same. Critics who have questioned the timing of the ban claim that the Paris attacks gave the government cover for this decision, which was actually made two weeks prior. The government’s announcement was timed in an attempt to neutralize some of these external pressures by suggesting Israel and the West face the same threats and that Palestinian and ISIS terrorism are the same. On the domestic front, the most important arena for Netanyahu, the measure will be used to hold domestic challengers at bay by reasserting the prime minister as “Mr. Security.”

There are significant challenges to this policy that underscore the idea that political interests may have outweighed longer-term security calculations. First, enforcement will be extremely difficult since there is no real membership list of this organization nor is there a way to determine affiliation except if someone holds office. Support for the Northern Branch numbers in the tens of thousands, although it is impossible to know the exact number because the definition of “support” is unclear. Because of the Northern Branch’s extensive social service provisions, it is often difficult to discern between support, sympathy, and the use of services that the state fails to provide. For example, this problem became clear when, as part of the crackdown, the authorities shut down, Jaffa Association for Charity, a charity to which the Israeli welfare services had referred needy families.

There are significant challenges to this policy that underscore the idea that political interests may have outweighed longer-term security calculations.

Second, this move could sow dissent among the Arab population against the state, possibly increasing political support for the organization. The immediate call for a general strike in the Arab sector by The High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, an organization that represents Arab citizens of Israel, in response to the ban shows the dissent the decision has ignited. Motivated by political opportunism, deeply felt conviction, or some combination of the two, many non-Islamic Movement Arab politicians who do not share the Salah’s views, see the attacks on his movement as threat to their rights as citizens of Israel. Moreover, according to the 2015 Index of Arab-Jewish relations, the majority of Arab citizens of Israel consider the Islamic Movement to be a legitimate movement. According to Member of Knesset Yousef Jabareen of the Hadash party, which is part of the Joint List composed of four Arab parties, “Outlawing the Islamic Movement is a dangerous political persecution and a severe assault on the Palestinian national minority’s freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly.” The fact that this support comes from a secular Arab leader underscores Salah’s stature as a political figure and symbol.

Lastly, the Southern Branch of the movement may increasingly be identified as the branch that participates in Israeli institutions and collaborates with the state. A number of leaders of the Southern Branch, which currently has three members of Knesset as part of the Joint List, have stressed that legal moves against the Northern Branch put them in an awkward position and complicate their relationship with the Israeli state. Despite sharing many of the same general goals as the Northern Branch, the Southern Branch competes with the Northern Branch for both political and financial support, and its potential perception as a collaborator with the state could be damaging. These pressures help explain the Southern Branch’s public support for Salah and the Northern Branch.

Lastly, the Southern Branch of the movement may increasingly be identified as the branch that participates in Israeli institutions and collaborates with the state.

There is solid ground for the Southern Branch’s concerns. According the 2015 Index, 43% of all Arabs sympathize in some way with the Islamic Movement, and among those that support the Islamic Movement, twice as many identify with the Northern Branch over the Southern Branch. Should the Northern Branch’s growth in popularity correlate with a decline in Arab participation in national politics, it would have a negative effect on Israel’s ability to tout its democratic credentials.

 

A Better Way Forward

In the coming days and weeks, there will likely be more clarification as to what groups and what activities are banned. It is likely that the Prime Minister and Defense Minister will soften the government’s initial stance because of the logistical and technical difficulties as well as the potential financial costs to enforcing the ban. It is also highly likely the Supreme Court will rule against the government’s ban of the Northern Branch. The latter might serve as an important face-saving measure of a ban that is difficult to enforce, may incite Arab backlash, will likely increase Salah’s standing, and could restrict the political space for Arab leadership that does not agree with the Northern Branch. Short of waiting for a Supreme Court decision to overturn the ban, one way forward would be to provide clearer guidelines as to what constitutes incitement, not just against Jews but also against Arabs, no matter the source or target of the incitement: Jews against Jews, Jews against Arabs, Arabs against Arabs, or Arabs against Jews. The challenging part will be not only refining the definition based on the existing legislation but also implementing these measures at a time when the Jewish and Arab populations are fearful of each other.

Instead of going for the political ‘win,’ banning the movement and inadvertently strengthening Salah’s prestige, the government should consider other ways to neutralize Salah’s and the Northern Branch’s appeal by undermining their narrative.

Still, it is quite likely that this ban will get stuck in the legal system and will drag on for some time. Instead of going for the political ‘win,’ banning the movement and inadvertently strengthening Salah’s prestige, the government should consider other ways to neutralize Salah’s and the Northern Branch’s appeal by undermining their narrative. One way would be for the Israeli government to continue to work publically and openly with Jordan and the Waqf as it has recently done. This move brings other parties in as stakeholders and makes it more difficult for Salah to attack Jordan and the Waqf as Israeli collaborators in a plot against Muslims. Along these lines, the government should distance itself from Jewish activists’ religious access and activities in and around the Temple Mount during this sensitive period.

 

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Lawrence Rubin is an assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Rubin’s research interests include comparative Middle East politics and international security with a specific focus on Islam and politics, Arab foreign policies, and nuclear proliferation. His most recent book is Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threats in Arab Politics, published by Stanford University Press. You can follow him on Twitter at  @lprubin73.