Court upholds incitement conviction for Islamist preacher Raed Salah

Judges say firebrand head of outlawed group gave speeches in support of gunmen who killed 2 police officers at Temple Mount in 2017, sparking more violence

Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, at a court hearing in Haifa on February 10, 2020. (Flash90)
Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, at a court hearing in Haifa on February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

Sheikh Raed Salah, the firebrand leader of an outlawed Islamist group, will serve 28 months in prison for incitement to violence, an Israeli court said Thursday, rejecting an appeal against his conviction.

Salah, the leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, was convicted by the Haifa Magistrate’s Court in November of incitement to terror and membership in an outlawed organization, after he spoke out in support of a terror attack on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount that left two police officers dead and inflamed regional tensions.

The Haifa District Court upheld the conviction and a 28-month sentence, but ruled that Salah would not need to report to prison until August 4 so that he can celebrate the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, which ends a day earlier.

Salah, a former mayor of Umm al-Fahm who has become a cause celebre in some pro-Palestinian circles, has served several stints in prison for incitement or support for terror.

According to the the verdict, Salah, 61, gave a sermon on July 21, 2017, in which he praised “martyrs of Al-Aqsa,” and those “guarding” the flashpoint compound, home to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

“For eight days they have not stopped [saying] over and over ‘In blood and spirit we will liberate Al-Aqsa. Have not stopped confronting the Israeli occupation, confronting the guns of the Israeli occupation, unafraid of the batons of the Israeli occupation and not afraid to be injured, wounded, arrested, not afraid of anything but Allah,” he said, according to the charge sheet.

The sermon came a week after three men from Umm al-Fahm carried out a shooting attack at the entrance to the Temple Mount, killing two policemen. In the wake of the attack, Israel first shut the compound, and then installed metal detectors at the site, a move that led Palestinians to hold massive protests outside, ratcheting up already high tensions.

Muslim worshipers perform noon prayers by the Lions Gate, outside the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 20, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Salah gave a similar speech at a symbolic funeral for the three gunmen in Umm al Fahm, and a would-be stabber from the city who was arrested in Tel Aviv days later indicated he had been inspired by Salah’s words, according to the conviction.

Salah had argued in his defense that his views were religious opinions rooted in the Quran and did not constitute a direct call to violence.

“It’s all lies,” he said after his original sentencing, according to the Haaretz daily. “Everything that was said [by the court] was far from the truth. I don’t know where they got this stuff that was attributed to me. It looks like someone wrote lies about me and the court presented them as facts.”

The judges in the appeal also rejected Salah’s contention that the attack was not terror, calling the claim “outrageous,” and noting that his use of the word “martyr,” or shahid, supported the contention that it was terror.

They also rejected the idea that the conviction impinged on free speech, saying that it did not extend to support for acts of violence, especially for a community leader.

“The leader knows that the public looks to him and learns from his words, as well as his silence, on supporting criminal acts. And so he bears responsibility,” they wrote in the verdict.

Sheikh Raed Salah, center, arrives at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court on August 15, 2017. (AFP/JACK GUEZ)

A contention that Salah’s Northern Branch organization should not be outlawed was rejected by the court as outside its purview.

Israel banned the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement on November 17, 2015, charging the hard-line offshoot organization had links to terrorist groups and had helped incite a wave of stabbing attacks and car-rammings that was taking place at the time.

The group rejects the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians and boycotts national elections on the grounds that they give legitimacy to the institutions of the Jewish state.

There was no immediate comment from Salah. In May 2016, as he began his last term in prison for similar offenses, he told hundreds of well-wishers that he was “honored to go to prison for the sake of Al-Aqsa.”

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