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Ariel Sharon Cracks Down On Israeli Arabs

by Ferry Biedermann

on Israeli Arabs
(IPS) JERUSALEM -- After its military moves in the Palestinian territories, the Israeli government is cracking the whip on leaders of its own Arab population.

Fifteen leaders have been arrested on charges of transferring money to the militant Hamas organisation in the Palestinian territories. The funds were used to encourage terror attacks, Israeli officials say.

Leader of the Islamic Movement Sheikh Ra'ed Salah is among the arrested men. He represents the so-called 'northern branch' of the Islamic Movement, said to be more militant than the 'southern branch.'

Leaders of the Movement deny the charges. "We never provided funds to Hamas," Salah's deputy Sheikh Kamal Khatib told IPS. "We only give to individuals, to orphans and poor people."

This may have riled the Israelis. Some of the "orphans and poor people" Khatib talks about are families of suicide bombers.

But Khatib says political considerations are behind the arrests. "This is just persecution by the authorities because they don't like our community to be strong," he said.

The Movement has grown visibly in strength. The thousands who attend Friday prayers at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque despite the closure of the Palestinian territories surrounding it are members of Israel's own Islamic Movement.

Israeli Arabs number about 1.2 million in a population of 6.7 million.

The police recently closed the movement's newspaper Sawt Al-Haq because they said it was inciting violence. Sheikh Salah has been barred from travel abroad since last year. Several other steps have been taken against members of the Movement.

Israel is worried about the effect of the Palestinian intifada on its own Arab population. The number of Arab Israelis involved in attacks has increased sharply since the outbreak of the uprising in the territories, the police say.

Arab Israelis are suspected of transporting suicide bombers or giving them shelter. Some people have been arrested for aiding the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. On rare occasions, Arab Israelis have been involved in attacks directly.

Yitzak Reiter of the Truman Center at Jerusalem's Hebrew University says involvement in attacks comes at the individual level. "Even if they are members of the Islamic Movement, I don't believe they are involved in terror at an organizational level, unless the security service knows something I don't," he told IPS.

The Movement operates usually within the law. "That is in their interest, at least for now," he says. He does not doubt that money has been transferred to the Palestinian territories but he doubts that it was directly sluiced to Hamas. But giving money to families of the suicide bombers is to cross the "Israeli red line," Reiter says.

For years the Israeli authorities actually encouraged the rise of the Islamic Movement as a counter to Communists who dominated the Arab community. This attempt seems to have backfired.

Israeli officials now blame the Movement for some aspects of the intifada. Salah had launched a campaign back in 1996 to "defend the Al-Aqsa from Israeli aggression."

Just months before the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000, the Movement organized a huge rally in Umm Al-Fham town to call for support for Al- Aqsa. This contributed to the heated atmosphere around Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where the Al-Aqsa is also located.

Reiter says the campaign contributed to the riots within Israel, but not to the outbreak of the intifada itself.

Khatib says the Movement rejects violence and supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He blames Israel for the spiralling violence in the territories. The aggressive policies have also led to alienation of the Arab community within Israel, he says.

Reiter says that though the Movement operates largely within the law, its message is often problematic. "In its pronouncements, its educational material for youngsters and in its general tone, the movement may actually incite violence," he says. "But that is very hard to prove, and most of it would fall under freedom of expression."

Assad Ghanem, an Arab Israeli from Haifa University blames the Israeli government for alienating the Arab community. When asked what effect Israeli policies would have on relations between the community and the state, he told IPS: "What effect? Relations cannot get worse than they already are."

The last four governments from both the left-wing Labor and the right-wing Likud have neglected the Arab community, Ghanem says. "Since this new government of Sharon came in place earlier this year, not one statement has been addressed to our needs, and we have only been approached as a problem, mainly as a security risk."

The arrest of the Islamic Movement leaders is "an attempt to decapitate the most effective and the most popular political force now operating among the Arab community," says Ghanem.

The Israeli government has indicated that it is considering outlawing the Islamic Movement altogether. Ghanem believes that step may not be far off.

He links the actions against the Islamic movement with the worldwide climate after Sept. 11. "Now it is acceptable to fight everything that has the word Islam in it," says Ghanem. "I'm not saying that Israel needs American encouragement to do what it is doing, but it may have helped."

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Albion Monitor May 15, 2003 (

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