It was an operation organised with the kind of ruthless precision needed to capture Osama Bin Laden. In the early hours of Tuesday 13 May, hundreds of armed Israeli police and security officials massed at different locations in northern Israel and snatched senior members of the country’s largest Arab organisation.
The biggest catch was netted in the Jewish town of Hadera. Sheikh Raed Salah, the nearest thing Israel’s Muslim citizens have to a spiritual leader, was arrested as he lay in a hospital room at the bedside of his terminally ill father, who died only hours later. The security forces had not forgotten to bring an escort of television crews and photographers who dutifully captured the scene as Salah was led away, in the white T-shirt he was sleeping in, for interrogation.
The official reason for the sweeping arrests — a total of 16 Arab leaders were taken into custody — was that Salah’s party, the radical “northern” wing of the Islamic Movement, which rejects participation in Israel’s national elections, had been funnelling money to Hamas, thereby aiding its terror operations. Referring to some $10 million that had allegedly found their way to the militant Palestinian group, Israel’s Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said, “we are speaking of lighting the bonfire of terror and throwing gasoline into it so that it will continue to burn.” He added that the money had been “camouflaged in the framework of charity funds and humanitarian aid but its practical significance was in oiling the wheels of murderous terrorism”.
Almost no publicity was given to a later retraction issued by the police stating that there was no evidence linking Islamic Movement funds with terror activities, such as “explosives belts or munitions or anything similar that comes to mind when terror is mentioned”.
Instead the police settled for a much weaker claim; that Salah’s group had “laundered” donations from abroad. This appeared to be legal euphemism for a new kind of allegation: the Islamic Movement’s leadership was suspected of directing funds to Islamic charities helping the victims of Israel’s military operations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including orphans and widows, those crippled by the army’s tank shells and live rounds, and those who had had their homes demolished by the army.
Among these victims, Israel was quick to point out, were the families of suicide bombers.
Hundreds of Islamic charities exist in the occupied Palestinian territories, many of them set up by Hamas. Although their charitable work contributes to fostering popular support for the militant group, the charities themselves are civilian in structure, personnel and the nature of the work they carry out.
Israeli newspapers reported that the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret intelligence service, the fraud squad and the northern police had been investigating Israel’s Islamic Movement for two years. Yet despite the lengthy inquiry, no charges had been pressed against any of the arrested men at the time of going to press. Instead a judge had approved continuing detentions while the police search for the evidence they are adamant they will find.
As the movement’s leaders were being rounded up last week, computers and files were confiscated from the offices of one of its charities, the Al-Aqsa Society, in Salah’s hometown of Umm Al-Fahm. Hanegbi vowed more arrests would follow when the documents had been sifted. In fact, Salah had been cooperating with the security services, including the Shin Bet, over the donations. Lists of recipients of the money were regularly submitted to the authorities for approval.
The heavy-handed arrests were interpreted by most Arab citizens in Israel as evidence of an ever more malign spirit at work in the prime minister’s office and as a prelude to banning the movement and further isolating Arab political representatives.
At a protest rally in Umm Al-Fahm on Saturday, which attracted several thousand people, Mayor Suleiman Aghbaria expressed a widely held view when referring to the Arab minority. “If those who help orphans are terrorists, if those who help widows are terrorists, then a million of us are terrorists,” he said. His words proved prophetic. The next day he too was arrested, becoming the 17th detainee. Aghbaria is apparently under suspicion for the alleged links between his company Al- Manar and a Palestinian charity called Beit Al- Mal.
In fact, the operation personally approved by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon against Salah and the leadership of his party had purposes other than the implied one of smashing a Palestinian terror infrastructure that has spread into Israel itself. For anyone who cared to look — and few in the past week have bothered — the true path of Sharon’s thinking was only too visible. By striking against Salah, the prime minister hopes to achieve several related goals. The least concealed is an attempt to reopen the festering debate in Israel about renewing access for Jews to the Haram Al-Sharif, or Temple Mount as it is known to the majority of the Israeli public.
The Haram, located in Jerusalem’s Old City, has been shut to non-Muslims since Sharon visited it on 28 September 2000 under the protection of some 1,000-armed policemen. Sharon’s visit, and the subsequent lethal shooting spree by Israeli police confronted by Palestinian protesters, lit the touch paper of the current Intifada. What is often overlooked is that the Haram has long been off- limits to almost all Palestinians, who are refused permits to enter Jerusalem and Israel.
In the aftermath of Sharon’s provocative visit, Salah and his Islamic Movement have played a key role in managing the site through their control of the Waqf (the Islamic trust in charge of sacred land) in Israel. They have worked ceaselessly to promote their movement as the true guardians of the compound, which contains the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and have raised large sums for repairs. They have also warned against what they fear to be Israeli plans to transfer control of the site to Jewish religious authorities.
Such fears are not unfounded. The former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak used the failed negotiations at Camp David shortly before the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada and the later Taba talks to promote a concept novel to Judaism, that the Temple Mount site itself was the “holy of holies” rather than the Western Wall, a large stone retaining wall that supports the elevated Haram. The wall is the only remaining part of the second Temple and traditionally considered Judaism’s most sacred site.
Salah has been staging an annual “Al-Aqsa is in Danger” rally in Umm Al-Fahm that draws more than 50,000 demonstrators each year — making the event by far the biggest staged by the country’s Arab minority. He has warned that extremist Jewish groups, who are winning a sympathetic hearing from some rabbinical authorities, want to demolish the two mosques and rebuild the Second Temple. With the enforced exclusion of Palestinian worshippers, Salah’s movement has also encouraged Israel’s Arab population to travel to the site regularly to ensure a strong Muslim presence. Rallies and school trips are frequently arranged by the leadership.
This has not gone unnoticed, or unpunished, by the authorities. Salah himself has been continuously banned from leaving Israel since February 2002, after he was blocked from catching a flight to Qatar at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. The original six-month ban, believed to be only the second time such a sanction has been used against an Israeli citizen, has been renewed twice by the courts in secret hearings. No evidence has ever been published substantiating official claims that Salah is “harming state security”. Since then there have been repeated calls in Israel for the banning of the Islamic Movement, its leaders have been dragged in for repeated questioning, and its main newspaper has been closed under draconian laws dating back to the British mandate era.
One of the party’s charities, the Israel Islamic Association, was closed by the authorities in June 2002. In a foretaste of the latest events, officials accused the charity of renting 200 homes in Jenin for families whose houses had been demolished in Israel’s wide scale destruction of the refugee camp two months earlier. It also accused the charity of adopting thousands of Palestinian orphans.
The attempt at discrediting Salah and the Islamic Movement has laid the ground for Israel to resurrect plans to allow Jews to return to the Haram Al-Sharif, despite the likely inflamed passions such a decision would ignite. The day after the main arrests Hanegbi promised to end the restricted access to the compound. “It is impossible to reconcile ourselves for a prolonged period to a situation where it is not permitted for all adherents of all religions to visit and pray at the Temple Mount,” he said. Sharon was also reported to be considering ways to “impose” non-Muslim visits on the Waqf.
Arab reactions were swift. Yasser Arafat’s Senior Adviser Ahmed Abdel-Rahman warned that reopening the Temple Mount to non-Muslims “could be the trigger for a third Intifada”, while the Syrian government daily Al-Thawra said the plan “harbours sinister intentions that aim at introducing new complications to an already explosive and complicated situation.”
Sharon sees the Islamic Movement arrests as offering additional benefits. The prime minister, like most Israeli Jews, has been offended by what he regards as a dangerous strengthening of Palestinian identity among the country’s Arab minority since the eruption of the current Intifada. The shooting dead of 13 Arab citizens by the police in the Galilee in October 2000 — which some suspect was designed to forcibly remind the minority of its inferior status — has instead reinforced a sense of separation and fostered mutual suspicion between Jews and Arabs. This has been reflected in growing support for the Palestinian nationalist ideology of Azmi Bishara and the Islamic fundamentalism of Sheikh Raed Salah. Both firmly reject appeasing Israeli hard-liners and are now squarely in Sharon’s sights.
The prime minister’s plans include persuading Israeli Jews and the wider international community that the country’s Arab minority are playing an active part in Palestinian terror. The media have been only too ready to help, highlighting Shin Bet figures of a dramatic increase in Arab participation in attacks (though still tiny in number), ignoring the fact that many of these cases have involved duped taxi drivers, love struck girlfriends of Palestinians in the territories or schoolboy fantasists. Few attacks have been organised or motivated by a clear ideology. Although only one member of the Islamic Movement has been responsible for a suicide bombing — in September 2001 — most Israeli Jews are now convinced that the Movement, and the wider Arab community, is a hotbed of terrorism.
Sharon upped his campaign of incitement in March by warning that completion of the security fence being built around the West Bank would not deter suicide attacks, merely encourage Israeli Arabs to commit such attacks on the Palestinians’ behalf. This campaign of demonisation appears to be working. A study by the Israel Democracy Institute last week revealed that a majority of the Jewish population (53 per cent) did not believe in equal rights for the Arab minority; even fewer, 23 per cent, supported Arabs being involved in crucial decisions made by the state; and 57 per cent thought encouraging Arab citizens to emigrate was a good idea. Similarly disturbing was the finding that only 77 per cent of Israelis believe democracy is the best system of governance, down from 90 per cent four years ago.
A final bonus provided by the arrests is the chance for Sharon to consolidate his hold over Palestinian finances. Before the detentions, the Islamic Movement had become a major channel of funding for Palestinian grassroots projects that were not under the control of the Palestinian Authority’s much abused patronage system. It has been widely overlooked that one of the men arrested last week was not a member of the Islamic Movement at all but a veteran Israeli member of Fatah. Muneer Mansour, of the Committee for Political Prisoners, was taken from his home in the Gallilean village of Majd Al-Krum at the same time as Salah, and his office computer confiscated. Now under house arrest, he claims that the police are pursuing him because he provided names to the Islamic Movement of prisoners who had no family to support them in jail.
“We have almost no money to help the prisoners and there are huge numbers in Israeli jails,” he said. “Some are helped by their own families, who send money to an official tab run by the prison shop so that they can buy cigarettes or phone cards. Others have no one. So in these cases I turned to the Movement for assistance, sending them lists of prisoners who would appreciate small sums of money — $15 or less — being put on their tab. This apparently means I have helped the terrorist infrastructure.”
The further punishment of prisoners, the severing of allowances that pay for the schooling of orphans, and the confiscation of funds to provide shelter for homeless families are unlikely to slake the Palestinians’ thirst for retribution for the violent occupation of their homeland. But it will mean that Sharon can ensure that most of the cash funds reaching the Palestinians (donations from Europe and the Arab states, as well as tax monies returned by Israel) are handled under the new accounting arrangements imposed on the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and his Finance Minister Salam Fayyad.
In other words, Sharon is tightening his grip on the Palestinian purse strings. Soon he hopes to be able to decide precisely who will be paid and how much their loyalty will cost.