No one was surprised by the Aug. 15 arrest of Sheikh Raed Salah. Residents of the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, where the head of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel lives, as well as his family, knew it was only a matter of time before police would come knocking on his door in the middle of the night. His wife, Camela Ahmed Mahajna, told Arabic-language Radio Ashams that in light of what she called the Israeli media’s campaign of incitement against her husband, he had been certain the police were biding their time, waiting for a suitable moment to arrest him. He was right.
Salah’s name came up in relation to the crisis over the installation of metal detectors at the entrance to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound in July, as someone inciting Muslims to violence to “liberate” Islam’s third holiest site. Salah was one of the founders of the Mourabitoun, a group of Muslims mobilized by the Islamic Movement to protect Al-Aqsa Mosque against Jewish visitors to the site. He was one of the first to issue a religious clarion call years ago, warning that Al-Aqsa was under threat and that the Jews were desecrating it by their very presence there.
In November 2015, with the outbreak of the wave of attacks that some call the individual intifada, Israel’s Security Cabinet decided to outlaw the Northern Branch. Yoram Cohen, head of Shin Bet at the time, objected to the move, arguing that there was insufficient evidence linking the group to terror activity. At the Rishon LeZion Magistrate’s Court hearing on remanding Salah to custody on Aug. 15, however, Judge Eytan Mizrachi revealed that he had seen prima facie evidence “pointing to a man who heard the speeches of the suspect … that led him to [commit] a violent act, something that could attest to his [Salah’s] posing a threat.”
The police presented the court with a series of allegedly seditious comments by Salah after the July 14 killing of two Israeli police officers near the Temple Mount by three residents of Salah’s hometown of Umm al-Fahm. In particular, they pointed to a sermon Salah delivered at the funerals of the three men, in which he praised their actions, as evidence of his inciting war over Al-Aqsa. Why, then, was Salah only arrested three weeks after the funerals?
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said in an interview on Channel 20 television that concrete evidence is required for an arrest on charges of sedition, and she surmised that law enforcement authorities did not want to act rashly. She also referred to the 2015 argument in the Security Cabinet over whether to outlaw the Northern Branch, saying, “Some said this would lead to unrest. In hindsight, we see it was the right decision.” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan also argued after Salah’s arrest that the sheikh was a public threat, and expressed his hope that he would be brought to justice and put away for a long time.
Al-Monitor has learned that during the Temple Mount crisis, the Security Cabinet asked Shin Bet whether placing Salah under administrative detention would result in calming the unrest or exacerbating it. The Cabinet debates and security briefings were conducted against the backdrop of violent protests in East Jerusalem, calls by Muslim authorities for the closure of the city’s mosques, mass prayers held adjacent to the controversial metal detectors and an attempt by the Fatah movement to organize a “day of rage” against Israeli forces in the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and security officials were mainly concerned with defusing tensions. The suggestion to detain Salah was rejected out of hand by Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh. They both envisioned a scenario in which the cleric’s arrest would lead thousands of his followers around Israel to join in the Palestinian demonstrations in East Jerusalem, further raising the level of tensions and violence. The arrest was thus postponed.
The police and Shin Bet, however, with the approval of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, cooperated in gathering publicly available and intelligence information for about a month. The decision to carry out the raid on Salah’s home in Umm al-Fahm was made when sufficient evidence had been compiled and when concern about violence in the town or in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas had dissipated.
“We saw many police cars arriving in the neighborhood and cops with their weapons drawn running toward his house in the Mahajna neighborhood, as if a war had broken out,” a local resident and relative of the cleric’s, N. Mahajna, told Al-Monitor. Since the banning of the Northern Branch, he added, the sheikh has become a persecuted figure, and support for him has only grown. “He enjoys greater support not only by members of the movement and Umm al-Fahm residents, but also by Arab citizens who disagreed with his views in the past but identify with him now over what he is being put through,” Mahajna said.
The political leadership of Israel’s Arab community, including Knesset members who generally shun Salah’s actions and sayings, has closed ranks over his arrest. Of particular note was the reaction by Israeli Arab Knesset member Issawi Frej, from the left-wing Zionist Meretz, who said to the press that the police were acting like political commissars in silencing freedom of expression. In December 2015, about a month after the Northern Branch was outlawed, Frej said in a speech at Bar-Ilan University, “I am very far from Salah’s views, but I don’t think he is fanning the flames any more than Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who told the Knesset that she would like to see the Israeli flag unfurled over the Temple Mount, over Al-Aqsa. Her comment is no less dangerous than those of Raed Salah, but she was given a reprimand, whereas his movement was outlawed.”