The Islamic Movement’s Northern Branch — long a thorn in Israel’s side

Radical group has disseminated outrageous incitement against Israelis. But outlawing it could create more problems than it solves

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Sheikh Raed Salah, center, marches with supporters outside the Jerusalem District Court on October 27, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Sheikh Raed Salah, center, marches with supporters outside the Jerusalem District Court on October 27, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement has presented a dilemma for Israel practically from the moment it splintered off from the rest of the movement in 1996.

On one hand, it’s a movement that aims to undermine Israel and does not recognize its institutions. Witness the decision of Sheikh Raed Salah (now head of the Northern Branch) to split off from the Islamic Movement after the leaders of the other branch decided to run for Knesset in 1996, and his earlier disagreements when they supported the Oslo Accords in 1993.

The heads of the Northern Branch often avoid interviews in the Israeli press, refuse to speak Hebrew and, above all, have taken a leading part in the incitement against Israel over the past 20 years. The Or Commission, for example, which investigated the events of October 2000 (in which 13 Israeli Arabs were killed by Israeli police during violent riots) at the beginning of the Second Intifada, found that Salah was responsible for the incitement that led to the escalation of an already tense situation. He was never punished for that alleged crime.

In 1996, as events surrounding the authorization of a northern exit to the Western Wall tunnels were unfolding (and which led to violent riots), Salah became aware of how to capitalize politically on matters regarding the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

He started to hold an annual rally titled “Al Aqsa [Mosque] is in danger” in the northern city of Umm al-Fahm. Thousands usually attended.

Last year, interestingly, saw a significant drop in attendance. But the Northern Branch has been central in fanning the flames surrounding tensions on the Temple Mount, which led to the recent wave of shootings, stabbings and car-rammings. The movement took part in the outrageous incitement against Israel and Israelis over the past two months which have seen at least 13 Israelis killed in dozens of near-daily terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank.

The Northern Branch, along with Hamas in East Jerusalem, succeeded in disseminating the utterly false impression that Israel was changing the status quo on the Temple Mount, including by deploying the so-called guardians of the site (the Murabitun and the Murabitat). Some of Israel’s far right politicians also contributed to the hysteria by going on visits to the site.

There were several considerations, including by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that prevented Israel from previously outlawing the Northern Branch. First, for the security establishment, the ban ordered Tuesday will constitute a massive headache, to say the least. Instead of the movement being in the open, it will move underground, making things more difficult for security forces. It will mean allocating a huge amount of human, logistical and financial resources to deal with a group with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of supporters.

It’s not clear how this will affect Israel’s Arab community. The Northern Branch is popular with some of the most poor, weak sectors in Israeli society such as the Negev Bedouin, where the group invests in the local population. It provides medical assistance, sets up educational institutions and invests in other things the State of Israel has neglected.

The closure of these institutions could create a vacuum in the Arab community and it’s difficult to say who or what will fill it. It’s clear, however, that the further weakening of already weak sectors will not increase the community’s confidence in Israeli institutions or make it more moderate.

Another question worth exploring in the near future is what effect this outlawing of the group will have on the ground. It’s true that the movement is a branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the sister organization of the Islamic Hamas, but will its supporters suddenly abandon the newly outlawed group or will they become more extreme, further rejecting the State of Israel?

For some, the answer is clear.

Many will understand that openly supporting an outlawed, anti-Israel group has a price and will prefer to stay home rather than attend another “Al-Aqsa is in danger” rally.

For others, hatred toward Israel will only grow.

And we can rest assured that they will find another name for the existing organization, like the “eastern branch,” instead of the northern branch. Instead of calling it the “Al-Aqsa is in danger” rally, they will hold demonstrations under another slogan that will allow them to operate lawfully but with the same ideology.

Until Israel outlaws those as well.

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