Israel’s Islamists: The Islamic Movement in Israel and their road to prohibition

By Jacob Lindelöw Berntson

The Islamic Movement in Israel is little known to the wider world compared to other regional Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas or Hezbollah. However, they have despite all odds managed to be highly influential in Israel. The outlawing of the group’s northern branch last year raises some important questions about Arabs and Muslims living in Israel, as well as the concept of an Islamic society within an explicitly Jewish state. In this post, we take a look at the background of the organisation and what’s behind their ban.

The origins of the movement

Due to the polarisation the Israel-Palestine conflict entails, it is often easy to forget that there are Arab Palestinians living within Israel’s borders. According to Israel’s Bureau of Statistics, Arabs constitute more than 20 % of the country’s population. Most of them identify as Palestinians in nationality, but as Israeli in citizenship. Most of Israel’s Arab population is Muslim, and this identity has been amplified by groups like the Islamic Movement over recent years.

The Islamic Movement was founded in the early 1970s. Its founder, Sheikh Nimr Darwish, was a Communist party youth leader before moving to Nablus in 1968 to study at an Islamic seminar. Back from the seminar in the early 70s, he taught Islam at a local school in Kafr Qassem, and started to expand his teachings to many of the surrounding villages. In the early 70s, he had developed strong support for his ideas in the area of Israel known as ‘the Triangle’, an area in which many Arab towns and villages are situated. Among his first circle of students were people like Raed Salah, Kamal al-Khatib and Ibrahim Sarsour, who today are some of the main players in the Islamic Movement’s leadership.

One thing that separated, and still separates, the Islamic Movement from many other Islamist groups in the Middle East is the focus on a national identity alongside a religious one. Whereas the Muslim Brotherhood were Muslim in a universal sense, the Islamic Movement did not see their national identity as Palestinians and their religious identity as Muslims as mutually exclusive. This meant that their work inevitably worked to enhance the situation of Israeli Arabs, who still do not enjoy the same rights as Jewish Israelis. The Islamic Movement’s goal was thus to lead Arab Israelis back to Islam, building an Islamic society within Israel and simultaneously function as a voice for Israeli Arabs’ rights within a Jewish state.

By the early 1980s, the Islamic Movement had managed to make itself a vital pillar in Israeli Arab communities. It provided education and religious teaching to those who had no access to it, and started to conduct philanthropical work on a larger scale during the remainder of the 1980s. One of the most important aspects of this work was the volunteer work camps that the movement organised. In these work camps, the Islamic Movement would rally several people to assist with building mosques, schools and providing basic services to neglected communities. This made both those who took part in the work camps and those who benefitted from them engaged in the Movement’s work and teachings, which subsequently led to unprecedented popularity.

Success and split

This encouraged the decision to stand for municipal elections, and in 1989 they won every such election they participated in, as well as winning the mayoral race in Triangle city Umm al-Fahm, which has remained their stronghold. In the early 1990s, when the Oslo peace accords were signed, leader Darwish saw a chance to expand the Movement and have them participate in national elections. Despite Raed Salah and Kamal al-Khatib opposing this tactic, arguing that taking part in parliamentary affairs would only paralyse the Movement, Darwish decided to go ahead and run in the 1996 national elections.

This caused the split in the Islamic Movement that still exists today, with one faction known as the ‘northern branch’ and the other one as the ‘southern branch’. The northern branch is led by Salah – in the UK most known for being (according to the ever so trustworthy Daily Mail) the ‘hate preacher’ that Jeremy Corbyn once invited for tea in the House of Commons – and Kamal al-Khatib.

The northern branch is known to be more radical, and has reaffirmed its vow to not stand for national elections. Moreover, in 2003 the northern branch announced they would no longer stand for municipal elections, arguing that their activities within the Israeli political system had diverted them from their main goal – Islamicising society. The final nail in the coffin to the northern branch’s life in Israeli politics came when they in 2013 decided to not run for mayoral elections in Umm al-Fahm, the city they had held since 1989.

The southern branch, traditionally more affiliated with founder Sheikh Nimr Darwish, is now led by Abu Daabes and participates in the Knesset as part of the Joint List alliance, which currently holds 13 seats in the Israeli parliament.

Since the split, the Islamic Movement has continued to work on many similar issues, but often do so through different institutions. The two issues that most clearly have defined the Islamic Movement since the split, besides its daily charity work, is the Negev Bedouin issue and caretaking of religious institutions, and especially the al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem.


Tending for the neglected Negev

The Negev (Naqab in Arabic) is a semi-desert area in southern Israel, home to more than 200,000 Arab Bedouins. The Israeli government has taken slow steps to recognise this quite substantial part of its population, but the Negev Bedouins have long lived in poverty with limited access to basic services, and are according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel one of the most discriminated groups in Israel. The Islamic Movement have through their work camps been able to provide services such as infrastructure and leisure centres for these communities, which have seen them become highly popular among the Negev Bedouins.

When the so called Prawer Plan was announced in 2011, the Islamic Movement were therefore quick to rally in opposition of it. The Prawer Plan aimed to relocate Negev Bedouins from areas not recognised by the Israeli government into recognised councils. However, since the Bedouins are a nomadic people, this was seen as forcefully disrupting their way of life. According to estimates, up to 70,000 were to be removed from their land and relocated into the recognised areas. When the bill was up for a vote in 2013, widespread protests erupted, with the Islamic Movement’s Negev branch being a leading voice in the protests. The Prawer Plan was put to a halt in late 2013, although the relocation of Bedouin families has continued to take place since.


Defending al-Aqsa?

The Islamic Movement is today perhaps best known for its work protecting Islamic religious institutions and landmarks. Since they are Israeli citizens, they have the ability to challenge decisions made by Israeli policy-makers that in their view infringes or disturbs Muslim sites of worship within either Israel or the Occupied Territories through the Israeli judicial system.

One case is the Mamilla Cemetery in West Jerusalem, where several prominent Palestinian Jerusalemite families and even soldiers of Saladin (who retook the city from the Crusaders) are buried. On this site, plans for building a (ironically enough) Museum of Tolerance have been approved, which would inevitably lead to the desecration of the cemetery. The Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement have been very vocal in their opposition to the construction plans, and even took the case to the Israeli Supreme Court in various instances between 2003-2008. The Supreme Court ended up giving the project a green light, but controversies have remained and the project is still awaiting construction.

As Larkin and Dumper point out, it is quite paradoxical that the northern branch used the Israeli judicial system as a means to voice their opposition, especially when they during the same time boycotted municipal elections. This tactic may have also been contradictory to their aims, as going through the Israeli system may in fact give authority to the same state that some members of the Movement don’t recognise.

The Islamic Movement chose a somewhat different tactic for their work with the al-Aqsa compound, which has become the cause with which they are most affiliated today. In 1996, the Western Wall Tunnel was opened, which caused fear among many of Jerusalem’s Muslims that there were plans of either destroying or interfering with the everyday affairs of the compound, which has remained in Muslim control through the Waqf foundation.

There has since been an increasing Jewish presence on the al-Aqsa compound. As Israel can regulate access to the compound, many fear an escalation of visits from extremist Jewish groups allegedly committed to destroying the al-Aqsa mosque and replacing it with a third Jewish Temple. Although many of the Islamic Movement’s members employ incendiary language when speaking about these issues (Salah has on many occasions expressed anti-semitic sentiments), there are legitimate worries among the Arab Muslim population in Jerusalem (as the Mamilla Cemetery affair demonstrates) that Israel is erasing the Islamic history of the city.

This is something that the Islamic Movement has identified and has employed in their rhetoric and policies. Larkin and Dumper call this ‘sacred resistance’- the usage of religious sites, practices, myths and narratives in order to perform oppositional acts ‘which seek to challenge the structures of power’. Raed Salah is the Islamic Movement leader most affiliated with this cause. His slogan ‘al-Aqsa fi khatar’ (al-Aqsa is in danger) has become a rallying cry, and he has even created an ‘al-Aqsa festival’ in order to ‘spread awareness’ among Muslims about the, according to him, ill-willing Israeli plans for the site. This has earned him the nickname ‘the al-Aqsa Sheikh’.

Raed Salah

Northern branch leader Raed Salah.

As part of their ‘protection’ of al-Aqsa, the Islamic Movement funded the Murabitat movement, a group of women gathering on the compound as a response to increased Jewish presence. Whereas Israeli media has described these women’s sole purpose being to harass Jewish visitors, the Murabitat were convinced that they defended al-Aqsa, which according to them is an integral part of Palestinian identity. Although the group has been confrontational (the group was declared illegal by Israel in September 2015), so have many of the Jewish groups visiting the site. Therefore, one could conclude, as a recent Brookings report did, that both the Murabitat/Islamic Movement and Jewish hardliners feed off of each other’s animosity in their battles over the al-Aqsa complex.

Choosing al-Aqsa as a symbolic stage for a conflict that is both bigger and more complex than the conflict over one specific religious site (even though the al-Aqsa and the Haram al-Sharif dispute is, as we discussed in a previous post, very complicated), has shown itself to be an efficient tactic, as it has drawn attention to the Islamic Movement and their work. As Larkin and Dumper highlight, they have managed to give themselves a platform from which to articulate Islamist values at the centre of the Jewish state.


Behind the ban

The decision to ban the northern branch of the Islamic Movement should not come as a surprise, as it had been discussed in Israeli political spheres throughout the Movement’s existence. As mentioned, the Murabitat were outlawed in September 2015, and Raed Salah has himself been taken to court and imprisoned several times, and was sentenced for incitement to violence in October 2015. A month later, the northern branch of the Islamic movement were outlawed, and thus seem to symbolise a last step in Israeli authorities closing in on the Movement.

However, the timing of the ban is opportunistic, as the decision came only days after the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, no stranger to populism, even compared the Islamic Movement to ISIS. As a basis for the ban, the Israeli government mentioned alleged links between the Islamic Movement and Hamas, and stated that the move was vital for national security. Interestingly enough, Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet, not exactly known as the most ardent defender of Palestinians’ rights, apparently tried to convince Netanyahu not to go through with the ban, as according to their intelligence, there was no evidence for the claim that the Islamic Movement was colluding with Hamas. Shin Bet also feared that the ban would be perceived as an act of war against the Israeli Arab community, thus possibly radicalising members of the Movement.

Netanyahu has by all accounts wanted to outlaw and neutralise both the Islamic Movement’s northern branch and Salah for some time. According to some reports, Salah was the target of the attack that Israeli troops launched on a Turkish ship that was part of an ‘Aid to Gaza’-flotilla, and a man that physically resembled Salah was killed in the attack. Moreover, his arrest in the UK in 2011 was purportedly based solely on intelligence received by the UK security forces from a lobby group believed to be close to the Israeli government. The basis on which Salah was arrested and sentenced later appeared to be falsified information handed over to Home Secretary Theresa May by the aforementioned lobby group.

As an astounding 73 % of Israelis in early October found that Netanhayu was not strong enough on security issues, the ban of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch was perhaps an opportunity for the Israeli Prime Minister to kill two birds with one stone, as the ban demonstrates that he is taking action against a group that many see as a threat for their ability to attract Arab Israeli sympathy.

However, there are doubts over how effective the ban will be, and if it will even be possible to enforce. The ban basically entails that anyone involved with the Movement could be prosecuted and imprisoned, but given the complexity and sheer width of the Islamic Movement’s institutions and charity bodies, and the amount of people who have taken part in a one of their volunteer activities, the ban is virtually impossible to implement.


What future for Israel’s Islamists?

A number of criticisms could be raised against the Islamic Movement, both in terms of their ideology and their tactics, but outlawing an organisation that has renounced violence and, to some extent, decided to engage in the Israeli political debate through its political system rather than resorting to violence, unfortunately sends the wrong signals. The danger is that many now might resort to violent protests instead. Moreover, Shin Bet has warned that the ban might drive the Movement underground, which could both radicalise them and make it harder for Israeli intelligence services to monitor their activities. Some fear that other Arab Israeli parties may be next in line to be outlawed by Netanyahu’s government, which of course would be a highly unfortunate development.

We are still to see what the actual effects of the ban on the Islamic Movement’s northern branch will be, but regional lessons tell us that outlawing Islamist groups does not lead to their dismantlement or disappearance. Although this recent decision complicates affairs for the Islamic Movement, it is not likely that their project of building an Islamist society within a Jewish state will vanish anytime soon.


Selected bibliography

Craig Larkin & Michael Dumper, “In Defense of al-Aqsa? The Islamic Movement inside Israel and the Battle for Jerusalem”, MIDDLE EAST JOURNAL M Volume 66, No. 1, winter 2012

Elie Rekhess, “The Arab Minority in Israel: Reconsidering the 1948 Paradigm”, Israel Studies, Volume 19, Number 2, Summer 2014, pp. 187-217

As’ad Ghanem & Mohanad Mustafa, “Explaining Political Islam: The Transformation of Palestinian Islamic Movements”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 41, No 4, 335-354, 2014


Top photo By Mr. Kate (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Second photo By Stayashuman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons



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