An Islamist leader convicted of incitement to violence and racism began a nine month jail sentence on Sunday after recently losing an appeal against the prison time.
Raed Salah, 57, head of the banned Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, left his home in the town of Umm al-Fahm in the north of the country and headed down to Ohalei Kedar detention center near Beersheba in the south during the morning, Haaretz reported.
Salah was sentenced last year for incitement to violence and racism over an inflammatory sermon he delivered in 2007 in Jerusalem. He has previously served terms for similar offenses.
Hundreds of people turned out to show their support for Salah, among them lawmakers from the Joint (Arab) List, a Channel 2 report said, but did not identify which MKs were there.
“It is an honor to go to prison for the sake of al-Aqsa,” Salah declared as he left his home, referring to the Temple Mount compound in the Old City of Jerusalem which includes the al-Aqsa Mosque. “We will never give up on al-Aqsa. I thank everyone who came to support me and call upon them: Protect the mosque.”
Salah accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led an effort to outlaw Salah’s Northern Branch, of orchestrating a campaign of harassment against his organization, the Channel 2 report said.
“This attack started with the Islamic movement, this is a barbaric attack that could harm many from the movement and the political leadership of Israeli Arabs,” Salah warned. “This campaign was forced on us by Netanyahu and his henchmen out of racism, incitement, and terror. We must stand united against the Israeli system and its racist policies.”
Last month the Supreme Court cut two months off Salah’s original 11-month prison sentence but rejected an appeal against his conviction.
A photo allegedly showing Salah in a car as he made the journey to prison was posted on social media.
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In April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Salah of stirring up trouble on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem ahead of the Jewish holiday of Passover that fell at the end of the month, and called for him to be jailed.
During the 2007 sermon, Salah expressed hope that “the streets of Jerusalem be purified with the blood of the innocent, who shed it in order to separate from their souls the soldiers of the Israel occupation, also in the blessed al-Aqsa Mosque.” He further said that “our finest moment will be when we meet Allah as martyrs in al-Aqsa.”
Israel banned the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement on November 17, 2015, charging the hard-line offshoot organization with links to terrorist groups and inciting a recent wave of violence which has seen multiple stabbing and shooting attacks by Palestinians, and some Israeli Arabs, over a period of six months.
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.
AFP and JTA contributed to this report.