How Will Sheikh Ra`ed Salah's Release from Prison Impact the Arab Israeli Public?
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | January, 2022
|Photo: Oren Rozenfeld | CC BY-SA 3.0|
Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, is the embodiment of radical extreme in political Islam in Israel in particular, and in the Israeli Arab public sphere in general. The basic principle to which Salah adheres is the "autonomous society" or "oppositional society" (al-Mujtama al-`Issami), i.e., encouraging the Arab public to differentiate itself from the ruling establishment and Jewish society, while objecting to integration into official capacities (with the exception of the municipal level) as well as denying Israel's right to exist, albeit without taking violent action against it.
Salah was among the founders of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Having completed his studies at the Islamic College in Hebron (1977–1980), he took part in movement activities, serving as editor of the Islamic Movement's organ, al-Sirat. His political career took off in 1989, when he was elected mayor of Umm al-Fahm, having defeated Hashem Mahameed, who represented Hadash, the left-wing (Communist) party that ruled the city for many years.
Salah was the undisputed protégé of Islamic Movement founder Sheikh Abdullah Nimar Darwish, but the two also held opposing opinions: Whereas Darwish supported the integration into state institutions and accepted Israel, Salah displayed deep alienation toward it. The tension between the two peaked in 1996, when Salah left the movement following Darwish's decision to set up The United Arab List, also known by its Hebrew acronym RA'AM, and participate in the Israeli parliamentary elections (for the Knesset).
Since then, there have been two branches of the Islamic Movement in Israel: The southern branch (i.e., the southern "triangle", particularly Kafr Qasem, the birthplace of the Islamic Movement) that has integrated into the Israeli establishment; and the northern branch (the northern part of the "triangle", at the center of which is Umm al-Fahm), headed by Salah, who feels alienation toward Israel.
Over the years, the power balance between the two branches has reversed: In the past, the northern branch had enjoyed greater public support, and was more politically dominant; whereas, in recent years, support of the southern branch seems to be increasing, and its presence in the public sphere is greater.
There are three reasons for this reversed trend: The southern branch has succeeded to gain a footing in several broad public sectors, particularly in Bedouin society of the Negev, half of which voted for RA'AM in the last elections; the northern branch was outlawed in 2015, and much of its activity restricted; the southern branch currently represents a widely-held view in Arab society, especially among the younger generation, whereby past slogans and ideologies have proven disappointing, and focus is now shifting to solving everyday civilian issues, while deepening the Arab public's integration into the Israeli establishment and society.
Salah was released from prison earlier this month, having completed a 16-month sentence following an inciting sermon given in 2017 soon after the terror attack on Temple Mount carried out by three Umm al-Fahm residents, killing two Israeli police officers. This incarceration was Salah's longest in his 40-year-long political career, during which he has faced trial for disorderly conduct and assault of police officers, contact with a foreign agent (primarily in light of the ties between the northern branch and Hamas), and severe incitement, praising terrorists who had carried out attacks against Israel. Salah was also expelled from the UK a decade ago after having been accused of giving antisemitic sermons.
Despite being outlawed, the northern branch remains active under various guises. It publishes the branch organ entitled al-Madina (published under the same name before 2015), there is an active Islamic law forum affiliated with the branch, vast social activity is promoted (such as charity work or the restoration of Muslim cemeteries across Israel), activities are organized on Temple Mount (primarily mass transit of worshippers), and there is even an active political party called al-Wafa wa'al-Islah ("Loyalty and Reform", a name that echoes the one used by Hamas when it participated in the Palestinian Authority's parliamentary elections – "Change and Reform"). The northern branch is also politically and economically supported by external parties, such as Turkey, Qatar, and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Salah is returning to a more complex reality than the one in which he was active in the summer of 2020. First, the Israeli government is now monitoring the northern branch more closely, inter alia due to the involvement of senior members of it in incitement and provocation during the violent riots that transpired in May 2021. Two names that emerged prominently in this context were Sheikh Kamal Khatib, Salah's long-time deputy, who was also detained for some time due to his activities, and Sheikh Yusuf al-baz, the branch representative in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod, who was also involved in inciting the Arab public during the riots that broke out just over six months ago.
Second, Salah is facing a political and public revolution promoted by RA'AM headed by MK Mansour Abbas, who, for the first time in Israeli history, has led the integration of an Arab party into a ruling coalition. Against this backdrop, heavy tension has been forming between the two branches in recent months, as the northern branch is lashing out at RA'AM, claiming that it has strayed from the principles of Islam. RA'AM is being accused of agreeing to partake in a coalition that promotes "an effort to banish Muslims from Temple Mount", one of the leaders of which is LGBTQ (a fundamental taboo in the discourse of both branches of the Islamic Movement). It has also been argued that the RA`AM was seemingly flexible on issues that contradicted Islamic Law or the Palestinian national interests, such as the Cannabis Law or its support of the amendment to the Mobilization Law (namely allowing IDF troops to be assigned to Israel Prison Service activities).
In view of this complex reality, Salah is likely, at least in the foreseeable future, to take precaution in issues associated with addressing Israel, including Temple Mount, and prefer to focus his efforts on the internal front, particularly enhancing his criticism of RA'AM.
In the few interviews he has managed to give the Arab media since his release, Salah hints at this approach: caution with regard to his attitude toward the regime, alongside more poignant statements against the unprecedented political and public experiment led by RA'AM, that, at least to date, seems to have garnered support across the board in the Israeli Arab public (as reflected in the survey conducted by the Konrad Adenauer Center and published earlier this month, whereby over 80 percent of Israeli Arabs support the steps taken by Abbas).
Salah's release is, therefore, expected to contribute to the deepening of the already heavy political tension in Arab Israeli society, and strengthen the opposition against RA'AM currently led by the Joint List. However, as the tension is honed, the Arab public will become more acutely aware of the difference between the two strategic alternatives it faces: continuing to adhere to rigid political and ideological principles that have yet to yield any significant achievements for Arab society, or breaking the old taboo while integrating into the political game, acquiring power, and prioritizing civilian problems over political issues, including those associated with the Palestinian system.
For now, at least, against the backdrop of considerable skepticism, it would seem that most Israeli Arabs support Abbas' approach, and struggle to see how that of Salah or the Joint List provides them with a resolution for their distress, primarily soaring crime and violence. The success or failure of RA'AM's strategic experiment will, of course, impact this equation directly, as well as the future relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
 See the interviews given by Salah to daily newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, 16 December, 2021, and Hamas' Safa website, 21 December, 2021.
 Arik Rodnitzky, A Comprehensive Survey on Political Stances in Arab Society, the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation in the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, 14 December, 2021.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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