How Will Sheikh Ra`ed Salah's Release from Prison Impact the Arab Israeli Public?
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | February, 2022
|Photo: The Islamic Movement Facebook page|
The 25th General Conference of the Southern Branch of the Islamic movement in Israel was held on 22 January and, during it, a new chairman was elected. Elections are held once every four years – in accordance with the movement's internal bylaws – and, this time, 514 of the 610 eligible voters participated in them.
Sawafat Fareij, who served as the deputy of outgoing leader Sheikh Hamad Abu Da`abas (a cleric from Rahat in the Negev), was elected as the new chairman, and is now the fourth leader of the Islamic Movement since it was founded by Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish in the early 1980s. Three of the four, including Fareij, are from Kafr Qassem (the "Triangle" area in the center of Israel) , the Islamic Movement's birthplace.
To a large extent, Fareij represents the young generation taking over the reins of the Islamic Movement leadership. He is 49 years old (his father is a survivor of the 1956 Kafr Qassem massacre), and he came from the movement's apparatus. Fareij has a college degree from the Sharia`a College in the town of Tira (in Israel), and, to date, has primarily engaged as Chairman of the Al-Aqsa Association in fundraising, restoring Muslim sites across Israel, as well as organizing public diplomacy and religious activities on Temple Mount, key among them the worshipper shuttle project to the site.
Unlike his predecessor, who was perceived as an authority on Muslim law who focused on social and cultural issues, rarely addressing political ones, Fareij is deeply involved in politics (Sheikh Muhammad Salameh Hassan from the Village of Mashhad un the Galilee, whom Fareij had defeated during this campaign, serves as the branch's Head of Sharia`a Council, and, in this context, is more similar to the outgoing chairman).
Fareij's victory may attest to most conference members' current desire to have a politically involved leadership, perhaps even indicating their support for the strategic line led by Head of the United Arab List (Ra'am party), Mansour Abbas, who Fareij often commends publicly (Ra'am serves de facto as the movement's representative on the political level, particularly in the Knesset).
A series of interviews conducted with Fareij in recent years reflects his outlook, which considerably matches that of Abbas: He supports greater integration into Israeli government institutions to resolve the issues of the Arab public and promote its interests, while criticizing the "too many slogans, too little action" policy that, he argues, is typical of other Arab parties (a clear reference to the Joint List). He furthermore attributes importance to fighting crime and violence in Arab society, which he defines as "the new Nakba". Fareij also emphasizes his national identity as a Palestinian as well as his affinity to the residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, while underscoring that it does not conflict with his willingness to integrate into Israeli government, for the promotion of Arab civilians' interests is a manifestation of national loyalty. At the same time, he has a conservative approach to social and cultural issues, primarily LGBTQ rights that all Islamic movement factors define as "perverted" (Shawadh).
Fareij follows the model of many political organization leaders produced by the Islamic Movement: He is a man of faith but not a cleric, who attributes great importance to impacting the political sphere while relying on Muslim law. He is therefore extremely similar in that sense to Ibrahim Sarsour, who was the head of the movement between 1998 and 2010, while serving as the leader of Ra'am and being a member of Knesset (he, too, was a political activist, not a religious leader).
Fareij's victory completes a struggle - and tension-free takeover by a relatively young group of leaders born in the 1970s of most power loci in the Islamic Movement. Key members of this group are: Mansour Abbas; Ibrahim Hijazi, Chairman of the Political Bureau, who lives in Tamra (the Galilee area); as well as Walid al-Hawashla, the newly elected Chairman of the General Conference who lives in Hura in the Negev, formerly served as the head of the Ra'am Knesset parliamentary group, and is the chief representative of the Bedouin public in the movement's leadership (a power hub that provided the United Arab List with almost 40% of the votes it received during the last elections). All four are identified with the revolutionary political line that Ra'am has been promoting for the past year.
The elections reflect Ra'am's public presence and political vitality. The conference participants represent dozens of offices and dozens of thousands of movement members across Israel; the elections themselves were an expression of its democratic character, including insisting on limiting the chairman's tenure to three terms (12 years); and their outcomes have allowed all key movement districts to be represented (the triangle, Negev and north).
In the background, as Ra'am's political experience continues or accelerates, a dialogue is formed within the movement on reshaping the relations between its leadership and Ra'am, including looking into the option of subordinating the movement to the party, or even separating the two.
In the strategic context, the outcomes of the elections in the Islamic Movement serve to strengthen the line led by Mansour Abbas from within, and, to a large extent, also reflect an inner vote of confidence in him. Much like the general Arab public, the Islamic Movement leadership is also aware of the many crises evolving while Ra'am is serving on the coalition – most prominent among them is the harsh tension that has erupted in the Negev in recent weeks, following which Walid al-Hawashla has threatened to pull Ra'am out of the coalition – however, it is still viewed as the favored alternative to the Arab parties' traditional policy, as well as a revolutionary path that could yield civilian and economic accomplishments (some of which have already begun to be realized in recent months).
This is a fateful attempt that could determine whether Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, which are at a historic crossroad, will stabilize and be shaped according to a new formula, or else collapse into an abyss of alienation that will increase the potential for friction between the two societies.
 Fareij has won 293 votes and Hassan – 215.
 Fareij has won 293 votes and Hassan – 215.
 For more information on Ra'am, see: Michael Milshtein, "Ra'am: Conservative revolutionism in Israeli Arab society" on Reichman University's Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) website (www.runi.ac.il), 10 March, 2021; Michael Milshtein, "The first Arab party in a ruling Israeli coalition: An in-depth analysis of Ra'am" on Reichman University's Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) website (www.runi.ac.il), 15 June, 2021; Michael Milshtein, "Quietly and persistently, Mansour Abbas' dramatic experiment moves on to the next level", Haaretz, 15 December, 2021.
 See, in this context, the analysis provided in the book recently published by philosopher Professor Subhi Yassin who is a member of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement: al-Nahaj al-Jadid Waqadiyya al-Mujtama al-Arabi fi Israil (Kafr Qara: Dar el-Huda, 2022).
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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