The Israeli government announced Tuesday that it had outlawed an Israeli Arab Islamist group it accused of inciting a surge of Palestinian attacks triggered by tensions over a contested holy site in Jerusalem.
The move, denounced by Israeli Arab leaders, further strained relations between Israel’s rightist government and members of the Arab minority, which make up one-fifth of Israel’s population.
Police raided the offices of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, confiscating computers, files and funds. Bank accounts were frozen and 17 affiliated organizations were shut down, police said. The banning decision by the Israeli security cabinet makes it illegal to belong to or aid the group.
The Islamic Movement provides religious, social and educational services to Israeli Arabs. Two members of its moderate southern branch serve in Parliament, but its hard-line northern branch, led by the fiery Sheikh Raed Salah, has denounced government policies toward Arabs and Palestinians and accused Israel of trying to take over the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Salah called the Israeli move “repressive” and vowed to take legal steps to thwart it. He is about to begin serving a prison term after being convicted of incitement in a sermon in 2007.
“For years, the northern branch of the Islamic Movement has led a mendacious campaign of incitement under the heading ‘Al-Aqsa is in danger’ that falsely accuses Israel of intending to harm the Al-Aqsa mosque and violate the status quo,” the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “A significant portion of recent terrorist attacks have been committed against the background of this incitement and propaganda.”
Palestinian charges that Israel is seeking to expand the Jewish presence at the Al-Aqsa compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, have fueled a wave of stabbings and other attacks since Oct. 1 that have left 14 Israelis dead. At least 78 Palestinians have been killed, 47 of them attackers, according to the police.
If they have claims of illegal activity, they could have submitted indictments.
Muhammad Barakeh, an Israeli Arab leader
The northern branch’s campaign at the Al-Aqsa compound has included busing supporters to the area and sponsoring groups of women known as Mourabitat who have confronted and heckled Jewish visitors to the site. Israel banned the women’s groups in September.
Ahmad Tibi, a prominent Israeli Arab lawmaker, said the timing of the Israeli move to outlaw the Islamist group was a “cynical political gesture” aimed at exploiting the atmosphere created by the recent attacks in Paris.
Israel’s public security minister, Gilad Erdan, drew a direct link between the two. “Israel must act as an example to spearhead the struggle against radical Islam whose emissaries we saw massacring innocent people in Paris,” he said in a statement.
Israeli Arab leaders called for a general strike and protests in the coming days. “This decision is a political decision,” said Muhammad Barakeh, head of an umbrella group of Israeli Arab leaders. “If they have claims of illegal activity, they could have submitted indictments.”
In another move likely to stoke controversy, Netanyahu gave final approval for construction of more than 400 homes in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem, an Israeli official said.
The homes will be built in Ramat Shlomo, part of a project that angered U.S. officials when it was announced during a 2010 visit by Vice President Joe Biden.
Israeli media reported that Netanyahu delayed approval of the building plans until after his recent meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.