Islamist firebrand preacher Raed Salah begins prison term for inciting terror

Head of outlawed group convicted for speeches supporting gunmen who killed 2 cops at Temple Mount in 2017, sparking more violence

Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, arrives for a court hearing in Haifa on February 10, 2020. (Flash90)
Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, arrives for a court hearing in Haifa on February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

Sheikh Raed Salah, the firebrand leader of an outlawed Islamist group, began on Sunday a term of 28 months in prison for inciting terror and membership in an illegal organization.

Salah, the leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, was convicted by the Haifa Magistrate’s Court in November 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 preacher briefly addressed the hundreds of supporters gathered outside Kishon prison on Sunday, saying: “Every Muslim and Arab in the world is proud of you — I do not respect the court’s decision.”

Last month the Haifa District Court rejected Salah’s appeal and upheld the conviction.

Hundreds of supporters of Raed Salah gather at Kishon prison, August 16, 2020 (Screen grab/Channel 12 news)

Former MK Jamal Zahalka told the Walla news site that Sunday’s jailing was part of an ongoing witch hunt.

“It is clear that this is another milestone in his political persecution. The [Northern Branch of the] Islamic Movement has been outlawed, now the right to speak is also outlawed,” Zahalka said.

MK Jamal Zahalka in the Knesset, on December 26, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel banned the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement on November 17, 2015, asserting that 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.

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.

Master Sgt. Kamil Shnaan, left, and Master Sgt. Haiel Sitawe, right, the police officers killed in the terror attack next to the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem on July 14, 2017. (Israel Police)

The sermon came a week after three men from Umm al-Fahm in Israel carried out a shooting attack at the entrance to the Temple Mount, killing two policemen — Haiel Sitawe and Kamil Shnaan.

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.

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 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.”

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

The judges in the appeal 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 from 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.

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

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