What is the Islamic Movement in Israel?

Islamic Movement Northern Branch leader Sheikh Raed Salah stands in front of graffiti insulting the Prophet Mohammed in Baqa al-Gharbiya, Israel. 

Backgrounder

What is the Islamic Movement in Israel?

Adam Hoffman

30 Mar 2016

Israel's main Islamist group often makes headlines in the Jewish state, but little is known about it outside the country.

ISIS' atrocities and territorial expansion have dominated global attention in the past two years. As a result, many in the West conflate ISIS beheadings and the group's harsh implementation of sharia law with Islam and Islamism. Historically, however, rather than declaring all-out war, as ISIS does, most Islamist movements have focused on religious education and social welfare to promote Islam as a complete way of life. Islamist movements that have used this dawah-based approach include Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Outside of its armed wing, Palestinian Hamas is another example. One lesser-known group doing similar work is Israel's Islamic Movement, al-haraka al-Islamiyya.

The Islamic Movement is often in the headlines in Israel, where the government outlawed the group's Northern Branch in November 2015. But little is known about the organisation outside the Jewish state. What is the Islamic Movement? Where does it stand when it comes to the tensions surrounding the al-Aqsa Mosque and the current wave of Palestinian violence?

The movement was founded in Israel in the early 1970's.

An Islamist group, the Movement was founded in Israel in the early 1970s, part of the general Islamic revival that swept the Middle East after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Much like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, it advocates the role of Islam in public life and seeks to promote a separatist Islamic identity among Israeli Arabs. Like the Muslim Brotherhood (and its Palestinian branch Hamas in its early years), the Islamic Movement is a religious organisation that adheres to Sunni Islam; it is a political group, and a social services provider. With this latter aspect it leads the charge using dawah to Islamise society. But it is in a unique position compared to other Middle Eastern Islamist movements: It operates under non-Muslim rule and (at least until the Northern Branch was banned) abides by Israeli law. As such, it is both ideologically Islamist and politically pragmatic.

For the Islamic Movement, as with other Islamists, Islam is a political solution and a complete way of life. In the Israeli context, however, the group presents Israel as a superior social and cultural alternative to daily reality for Arab Muslims in the Jewish state.

Following the Muslim Brotherhood’s lead

Unlike other Islamist groups, such as Hamas, the Islamic Movement does not have its own ideological programme. Instead, it draws on existing ideas from the Sunni Muslim world. Its motto, "Islam is the solution," al-Islam hu al-hal, is based on the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology. Unlike Hamas, however, which states its official affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood in its charter, the Islamic Movement has no such formal ties to the Egyptian Brotherhood.

Hamas and the Islamic Movement are Muslim Brotherhood offshoots.

The movement says it is independent, while the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accuse it of maintaining "close, secret ties" with Hamas, and of receiving millions of dollars annually in funds from Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Such ties are perhaps unsurprising. Both Hamas and the Islamic Movement are offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood that blend Islamism and Palestinian nationalism. Sheikh Raed Salah, a former mayor of Umm el-Fahm, one of Israel's largest Arab majority cities, and the leader of the Northern Branch, dismisses the accusations. He has described them as "baseless propaganda" and "incitement" against the movement.

Aside from following Muslim Brotherhood principles, the Islamic Movement also follows the group's modus operandi. It calls for a gradual change of society from below, as opposed to the jihadi model of violent revolution. To this end, the Movement runs extensive social welfare programmes. It has established kindergartens, mosques, even its own football league around the country, positioning itself as a key part of public life for many Arab citizens. Supporters of the Movement in Umm el-Fahm praised it for improving water and sewage systems and founding a national network of highly regarded Islamic schools. Through such activities the Islamic Movement has built up an estimated 20,000 members.

The Islamic Movement is divided over the State of Israel.

The movement is united around the need to Islamise Muslim collective identity in Israel, but it is divided when it comes to the state. This conflict led to a formal split in the mid-1990s, after Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords. One faction, known as the Southern Branch, gave Israel de-facto recognition by participating in the 1996 Knesset elections as the United Arab List. It won four seats in the Knesset. The Northern Branch, meanwhile, urged supporters to boycott the vote.

Israel's most recent elections in 2015 highlighted the current operational (if not ideological) differences between the two branches. While the Southern Branch decided to join forces with other Arab parties under the Joint List, a political alliance of four Arab-dominated parties, in order to gain political power, Salah claimed that "the impact of engaging in Knesset elections has created a kind of illusion, and this illusion has said we're able to deal with all issues relating to Arab lives in the Knesset. Had we looked for an alternative to this illusion, establishing civil society institutions that serve the needs and rights of our people, we would have been able to succeed more." The emphasis on "civil society institutions" highlights the Northern Branch's preferred strategy of dawah over formal participation in Israeli politics. While last year's elections highlighted differences in strategy between the two branches, some scholars claim there is no ideological difference between them. The heads of the Southern Branch themselves seem to agree with this assessment, as they have stated that the establishment of the Joint List does not mean there are no more ideological differences between the parties.

‘Redeem the al-Aqsa mosque with blood’

In recent months, the Northern Branch was once again in the news as tensions flared around the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the Israeli government outlawed the branch. Salah had urged supporters to "redeem the al-Aqsa mosque with blood" amid alleged Israeli attempts to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, something Israeli officials have denied.

Netanyahu banned the Northern Branch of the Movement.

Salah's vocal opposition to the government and his politicised defence of al-Aqsa have positioned him as the "champion of al-Aqsa" in the Muslim world. His activities include organising an annual festival in Umm al-Fahm entitled "al-Aqsa is in Danger." As part of this campaign, Salah also organised Islamist activist groups, the Murabitun and Murabitat, to monitor and harass Jews and other non-Muslims visiting the Temple Mount. Israeli security officials blamed these groups for "inflaming the tensions" there in recent months, claiming that "these activities have provoked a significant rise in tensions at the Temple Mount."

The Netanyahu government banned the Northern Branch following Salah's recent comments. It accused the group of spreading incitement, undermining the State of Israel, and having ties with Hamas. It also held the group responsible for the current wave of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians. Netanyahu announced the move shortly after the ISIS attacks in Paris, presenting it as part of the global struggle against Islamist terrorism. Salah claimed in response to this move "that the Islamic Movement will endure and continue its mission, upholding all the inalienable principles for which it was established, led by the issues of Jerusalem and al-Aqsa. I will seek by all legitimate means, locally and internationally, to lift this injustice."

Many Israeli Jews welcomed the step, seeing it as a necessary move against Palestinian incitement and terrorism. But for many Israeli Arabs, the ban was seen as political persecution rather than an action against an extremist organisation. This sentiment could be evident in the mass demonstration that was held in Umm al-Fahm after the ban, in which thousands of Israeli Arabs protested against the government's decision. Some analysts fear the move will further radicalise certain elements within the Israeli Arab community and push more people into supporting extremist groups such as ISIS. Others fear it might further strain the already tense ties between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

 

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The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.