UMM AL-FAHM, Israel—Sheik Raed Salah has been called a "ticking time bomb." He's being investigated for provocative speeches that some consider a threat to Israel.
One Israeli lawmaker wants to ban Salah's political party. Others think he ought to be thrown out of the country, even though, like 1.4 million other Arabs, he holds Israeli citizenship.
In his latest showdown with the Israeli government, Salah was arrested on Wednesday while protesting construction and excavation at what's probably the world's most contested religious site: the 35-acre compound in Jerusalem's Old City known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
Salah has called on Muslims to stage an uprising against Israel as it moves ahead with plans to replace a crumbling dirt ramp that non-Muslims use to enter the contested compound. Despite Israeli assurances that they have no intention of harming the Muslim sites, Salah and his allies see the project as a covert attempt to destroy the sanctuary's Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest site, and pave the way for construction of a biblically inspired third Jewish temple in its stead.
The campaign has generated modest and largely peaceful protests. But Salah's protests and his Israeli citizenship have sparked renewed debate over unresolved issues of nationality, politics and religion at the heart of this ancient conflict.
"Raed Salah is not a sheik or a religious leader. He is a terrorist and we need to remember this," conservative Israeli lawmaker Effie Eitam recently told Israel Radio. "He needs to be treated as a terrorist, as a ticking time bomb within the foundations of the state of Israel."
The 48-year-old father of eight has been barred from going near the contested religious site and arrested for challenging Israel's actions.
"It is the Israeli authorities that are the ones that should be charged," Salah said in an interview before his arrest. "I'm in the right, trying to fight for a just cause, and I have the right to resist."
Salah first gained prominence as the mayor of Umm al-Fahm, a predominantly Arab city in northern Israel with about 43,000 residents. Salah held the post for 10 years and his party, the Islamic Movement, still controls the city council.
Salah heads the movement's northern branch, which embraces a more uncompromising policy than the southern branch, which takes part in national Israeli elections. Salah and the northern branch refuse to do so and stick to running in local elections.
Salah is gaining more respect in his hometown for taking on Israel over the construction project, even from those who disagree with his conservative religious beliefs.
"Even though I am against the Islamic Movement, as a Muslim I am grateful to him for highlighting the issue," teacher Hisham Mahajne said while debating the issue with friends at a coffee shop in the center of town. "Sheik Raed has played a critical role when it comes to Al Aqsa."
At home, Salah is quiet and respectful with his mother, wife and eight children. But there can be no mistaking his convictions: His youngest son is named for Salahdin, the legendary Muslim military leader who forced Christian Crusaders out of Jerusalem in the 12th century.
"He will liberate Palestine and Al Aqsa," Salah's mother, Ruquia, said of her grandson as the 3-year-old boy rushed out of the sitting room with a blue cartoon sticker on his forehead.
Salah was in an Israeli jail when Salahdin was born. In 2003, Israel arrested Salah and four of his Islamic Movement members, accusing them of raising money for Hamas, the hard-line Islamist group behind the suicide-bombing campaign of the second Palestinian uprising.
But the case fell apart, and Israel agreed to release Salah after 28 months when he agreed to a plea bargain on less incendiary charges.
Since construction at the holy site began in late January, Salah has been barred from going into Jerusalem's Old City, arrested and accused of scuffling with an Israeli police officer. Israeli prosecutors said they're looking into charges that Salah was trying to illegally incite trouble with his calls for a new uprising against Israel.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently condemned Salah's protests as an attempt by "the most radical anti-Israeli Islamic group in Israel to stir the emotions and provoke violence between us and Arabs."
Salah's protests also are fueling a debate over the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
Arab-Israelis represent about 20 percent of the Israeli population of 7 million, and they often face discrimination in the Jewish state. A recent Haifa University study found that three-quarters of Jewish respondents thought Arabs were uneducated, uncivilized and unclean.
Many Jewish residents were shocked last summer when many Arab-Israelis voiced support for Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah during the militant group's 34-day war with Israel. Before the war, lawmaker Avigdor Lieberman, now a minister in the current Israeli government, suggested that Arab-Israeli lawmakers who met with Palestinian leaders be executed as collaborators.
Such threats often serve to reinforce the perception among Arab-Israelis that they're little more than guests who've overstayed their welcome in their own country.
"They have put Sheik Raed in the same category as (Osama) bin Laden and Nasrallah," said Umm al-Fahm resident Ahmed Zeit as he talked about the controversy at the coffee shop. "This annoys us because he's not a terrorist. He represents the people."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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