Thousands of Arab Israelis took to the streets of Umm al-Fahm in central Israel on Saturday afternoon to protest the recent security cabinet decision to outlaw the radical Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement. Channel 2 estimated the turnout at over 10,000.
The protests were organized by the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, an umbrella organization representing Arab Israelis at a national level.
Several Arab members of the Knesset were present at the protest. Jamal Zahalka (Joint List) claimed the Northern Branch “has never breached the law,” and vowed not to rest in the fight to overturn the ban. Opponents of the ban are considering a petition to the Supreme Court.
Northern Branch leader Sheikh Raed Salah, who has frequently been arrested and jailed for incitement and links to terrorism, and who opposes the existence of Israel, called the ban “blind hatred.” He told the crowd, “We’ll beat their racism and hatred.” Reasserting his claim that Israel was endangering Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque and compound — the Temple Mount — Salah vowed to “liberate” al-Aqsa “with blood and fire,” and to struggle “against the occupation… until the last of our refugees has been returned.”
Protesters waved Islamic Movement, Palestinian and Turkish flags and called for the ban to overturned. Some demonstrators were shouting: “We sacrifice our lives for Al-Aqsa.”
This is the second consecutive Saturday that Arab Israelis have protested the cabinet decision. Last week, demonstrations took place in the northern towns of Kafr Kanna and Deir al-Asad and in the central town of Qalansawe.
The Northern Branch rejects the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, and boycotts Israel’s national elections on the grounds that they give legitimacy to the institutions of the Jewish state.
The cabinet earlier this month charged the Northern Branch of having links to terrorist groups and inciting the current wave of deadly violence. It said in a statement that membership or activity within the framework of the group would constitute a “criminal offense punishable by a prison sentence.”
Police then raided the Islamist group’s offices in an overnight operation, seizing documents, computers and money in chapters across the country.
Salah at the time expressed defiance over the ban, saying he would remain in charge of the group and “continue to defend Al-Aqsa from Israel.”
The Northern Branch leader was sentenced earlier this year to 11 months in prison for incitement to violence and racism over an inflammatory sermon he delivered in 2007 in Jerusalem. He has previously served terms for similar offenses.