Israel bans Islamist group over Al-Aqsa mosque clashes

AFP , Tuesday 17 Nov 2015

A man holds a framed picture montage at the office of Raed Salah, the leader of the radical northern wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel, following an Israeli police raid in the Arab-Israeli town of Umm al-Faham November 17, 2015 (Photo: AFP)

Israel banned the radical wing of the country's main Islamist organisation Tuesday, accusing it of having instigated violence at a sensitive Jerusalem holy site that sparked weeks of Palestinian unrest.

The ban comes as Israel tries on several fronts to stop the Palestinian wave of protests, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly declaring that he will pursue those he accused of incitement.

However, some questioned whether the ban would further stoke tensions and also harm legitimate political debate.

Mohammad Barakeh, the head of an Arab Israeli umbrella organisation, accused Netanyahu of taking advantage of anti-Islamist sentiment in the Western world following the Paris attacks to crack down on the group.

The radical branch of the Islamic Movement, based largely in northern Israel, rejects the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians and boycotts elections on the grounds that they give legitimacy to the Israeli institutions.

It has been behind a campaign alleging that the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the occupied east Jerusalem is "in danger", stoking fears that Israel plans to change rules governing the site, which Netanyahu has repeatedly denied.

Early Tuesday, security forces raided offices of the movement and 17 associated organisations in Arab communities, police said, seizing cash, documents and computers.

Raed Salah, head of the organisation, and two other officials were summoned to a police station in the northern city of Haifa for questioning.

"All these measures taken by the Israeli establishment are unjust and unacceptable," Salah said in a statement, calling it "blatant injustice".

In announcing the ban, a government statement said that "any person who belongs to this organisation or who provides services to it" would be committing a criminal offence.

It accused the group of incitement "based on the lie that 'The Al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger'," adding that the group shared "an extremist ideology" with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Netanyahu said it "incites violence against innocent people."

"It has close ties with the Hamas terrorist organisation and it seeks to subvert the state in order to establish an Islamic caliphate in its place."

Barakeh said Israel is "exploiting the situation in the region and the world to escalate its repressive and authoritarian attacks against the Arab people in the country."

His organisation called for a general strike over the ban for Thursday. Arab Israelis -- Palestinians and their descendants who remained after Israel was created in 1948 -- make up some 17.5 percent of the population.

Others questioned whether the move could harm legitimate political debate.

"The sense is that this could be a slippery slope," said Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with the Middle East programme at the International Crisis Group think tank.

The Al-Aqsa compound is the third-holiest site in Islam. Jews are allowed to visit, but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions.

Clashes broke out at the site over several days in September. Palestinian youths protested inside the mosque and Israeli police responded with stun grenades and tear gas.

Strict security measures, including limits on who was allowed to enter, eventually halted those clashes, but a new wave of Palestinian protests began in October. 

The crisis started in late July when an 18-month old toddler Ali Saad Dawabsha was burned to death and three other Palestinians were severely injured after their house in the occupied West Bank was set on fire by Israeli settlers.

The settlers smashed the windows of two homes in the village of Duma near Nablus and threw Molotov cocktails inside the buildings. Dawabsha died after sustaining serious burns as a result of the attack.

The parents of the toddler, Riham and Saad, and their other son Ahmad lost their lives after suffering serious injuries as a result of the attack

The violence has killed 12 Israelis and 83 on the Palestinian side, one of them an Arab Israeli. 

The attackers have mainly been young Palestinians who appear to be acting on their own, frustrated with Israel's occupation, a frozen peace process and the leadership of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, whose calls for peaceful resistance they have ignored.

Other measures Israel has pursued in recent days have included controversial demolitions of homes of suspected attackers, which have sparked clashes, such as on Monday when Israeli forces shot dead two Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

The northern branch of the Islamic Movement has long been on Israel's radar.

In October, Salah was sentenced to 11 months in jail on charges of inciting violence at the mosque compound in a 2007 speech. He is currently pursuing an appeal.

His movement has also been accused of financing two Muslim groups, which act as self-appointed sentinels at Al-Aqsa, keeping an eye on Jewish visitors and harassing those they suspect of secretly praying.

Both groups were outlawed from the site when tensions boiled over in September.

*This story was edited by Ahram Online. 

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