Arab Israeli lawmakers and regional council heads have joined representatives of Israel’s Islamic Movement in opposing a government decision to outlaw the radical Northern Branch of the group, with one MK calling the move “a declaration of war.”
After an emergency meeting held Tuesday morning, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee called for nationwide protests to be held this weekend.
The Shin Bet security agency is worried the ban could provoke an adverse reaction from the Arab Israeli public, potentially sparking further violence, the Ynet news site reported.
The Haaretz newspaper reported that Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen told the security cabinet during a hearing on banning the Northern Branch that the agency had no intelligence evidence directly linking it to terrorist activity.
The security cabinet declared the northern branch illegal in a meeting late Monday night, charging it with links to terrorist groups and incitement in the recent wave of violence, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement Tuesday.
“For years, the northern branch of the Islamic Movement has led a mendacious campaign of incitement under the heading ‘Al Aqsa is in danger’ that falsely accuses Israel of intending to harm the Al Aqsa Mosque and violate the status quo,” the statement said.
Israeli security forces carried out a series of overnight raids on the organization’s offices, seizing computers, documents and cash in regional branches across the country, the Israel Police and Shin Bet said. Police also froze bank accounts linked to the organization and a number of NGOs working alongside it.
Responding to the announcement, Knesset member Taleb Abu Arar of the Joint (Arab) List said that Israel had “declared war on the Arab community in Israel, and Israel had to bear the consequences.”
Abu Arar told Israel Radio that the Islamic Movement was not responsible for the recent violence, blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies regarding the Temple Mount for causing “the third intifada.”
“The Islamic Movement will not stop defending the Al-Aqsa Mosque and won’t remain silent toward what is going on there,” he said.
The leader of the northern branch, Sheikh Raed Salah, denounced the decision, calling it “repressive.”
“I will take every possible legitimate step, in Israel and internationally, to remove the measures taken against the movement,” he declared.
Salah is set to start an 11-month prison sentence later this month for incitement to violence and racism over an inflammatory sermon he delivered in 2007 in Jerusalem. He has previously served terms for similar offenses.
Joint List chair MK Ayman Odeh said the move was a politically motivated decision made for “strategic purposes” that would hurt Israel’s Arab Israeli population.
“Netanyahu is continuing in his attempts to exacerbate the situation on the ground and cause additional escalation by inciting against a political movement whose activities are all conducted under the right to free speech,” he said. “This is indisputably a case of political, anti-democratic persecution that is part of the de-legitimization campaign waged by Netanyahu’s government against the country’s Arab citizens.”
Both government ministers and opposition parties have come out in support of the move.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said the decision gave law-enforcement officials more tools to counter incitement. He described the move as representative of global efforts to stem Islamic terrorism, particularly in the wake of a wave of attacks in Paris on Friday that left 129 dead.
“The Islamic Movement, Hamas, the Islamic State and other [Islamist] organizations have a common ideological platform that is the cause for terrorist attacks around the world and the wave of terror in this country,” he said.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who chairs the right-wing Jewish Home party, expressed similar sentiments in a statement Tuesday morning.
“From Paris To Jerusalem, there is one war on terror. The State of Israel moves from words to action: We are destroying terrorists’ homes, canceling residency statuses, and this morning we outlawed [the northern branch of] the Islamic Movement,” Bennett said.
Opposition parties Yesh Atid and the Zionist Union also praised the decision to ban the group, both describing it as “an appropriate step” in curbing incitement.
Founded in the 1970s, the Islamic Movement is not just a a political organization but also religious outreach group and social service provider rolled into one. The movement’s overarching goal is to make Israeli Muslims more religious and it owes much of its popularity to providing services often lacking in Israel’s Arab communities. Today the group runs kindergartens, colleges, health clinics, mosques and even a sports league – sometimes under the same roof.
The movement split two decades ago. The more moderate southern branch began fielding candidates for Israel’s Knesset in 1996 and is now part of the Joint List, an alliance of several Arab-Israeli political parties. Three of the Joint List’s 13 current Knesset members are part of the movement. The more hard-line northern branch rejects any legitimization of Israel’s government and has called on its adherents to boycott elections.
JTA contributed to this report.