News Analysis: Officials Fear Islamic Movement is Doing Hamas’ Work Inside Israel
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News Analysis: Officials Fear Islamic Movement is Doing Hamas’ Work Inside Israel

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Sheik Raed Salah Mahajneh is known for his fiery speeches.

The mayor of Umm el-Fahm, the second largest Arab town in Israel after Nazareth, Mahajneh is the leader of the radical wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

For years, he has railed against successive Israeli governments for confiscating the lands of Israeli Arabs and for undermining Muslim rights to holy sites on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

While he has never been suspected of involvement in actions against the Jewish state, he has likewise never called for Jewish-Arab coexistence.

Even if his speeches were considered inflammatory, Israeli officials largely ignored them.

But this is changing, now that three Israeli Arabs who carried out car bombings earlier this month in Haifa and Tiberias were linked by police to the Islamic Movement.

Moreover, police officials have pointed to a link between the movement and Hamas. Indeed, the Sept. 5 car bombings — which came hours after Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat signed an agreement in Egypt for advancing the peace process — have prompted some police officials to speculate that Hamas recruited Israeli Arabs who belong to the Islamic Movement because Israeli and Palestinian security officials have hampered Hamas’ activities in the territories.

In the wake of the bombings, Israeli officials are now paying considerable attention to the speeches of people such as Mahajneh.

Israelis of all political stripes well remember that the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was also preceded by inflammatory speeches.

Although Israeli leaders, including Barak, have cautioned that the entire Israeli Arab population should not be condemned for the crimes of a few, there have been growing concerns that Israeli Arabs — who make up one-fifth of Israel’s population — could create a formidable “fifth column” for anti-Israel attacks.

While Israeli Arab leaders have condemned members of their community who are involved in terrorist attacks, Israeli security branches are not satisfied.

On Sunday, Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami consulted with senior security officials on how to deal with the Islamic Movement.

Among the proposals raised at the meeting was a plan to revoke the licenses of religious leaders who preach against Israel. The officials also discussed a plan to place restrictions on Islamic religious leaders suspected of anti- Israel incitement.

In the wake of that meeting, Ben-Ami was expected to recommend to the Inner Security Cabinet that steps be taken to limit the activities of the Islamic Movement in Israel, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Tuesday.

A rally that was sponsored by the Islamic Movement and held last Friday in Umm el-Fahm, which is the movement’s stronghold, could well provide ammunition for those who believe that the activities of some of the movement’s leaders should be restricted.

At that rally, thousands of protesters heard speeches alleging that the “Zionists” were bent on taking over Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

Israeli officials are well aware that the Islamic Movement, which has developed its own network of social services, including kindergartens, medical services and libraries, is not a monolithic entity.

Along with the northern wing, which is led by Mahajneh and by Sheik Kamal Khatib of Kafr Kana, there is a more moderate southern wing, led by Sheik Abdullah Nimmer Darwish of Kafr Kasim, an enthusiastic supporter of the peace process, and by Ibrahim Sarsour, Kafr Kasim’s mayor.

Representatives from the movement’s southern wing are members of the United Arab List, the largest Arab party in the Knesset.

Israeli officials view the Sept. 5 car bombings as evidence of the growing influence of the Islamic Movement’s more radical wing.

The three Israeli Arabs who carried out the attacks — in which the car bombs apparently exploded prematurely, killing them and seriously wounding an Israeli woman who was passing by — came from the villages of Mashad and Daburiya, where residents are considered well off and their young people receive a relatively high standard of education.

Neither village is considered the typical hotbed of radical fundamentalist activity, and if Islamic fanaticism could sink roots in such places, Israeli officials believe they have reason to be concerned about the emergence of other fanatics in places of poverty and social misery such as Umm el-Fahm and its neighboring villages.

The alleged link between the Islamic Movement and Hamas is not a new one.

In recent years, the deputy mayor of Umm el-Fahm, Suleiman Aghbariya, was detained four times on charges of transferring funds between the movement and Hamas. The charges were never substantiated, and Aghbariya was freed each time.

Whether the link with Hamas is ever proven, Israeli officials are now calling for a crackdown against any form of incitement within the Israeli Arab community.

When the Knesset convened last week for a special session about the involvement of Israeli Arabs in the Sept. 5 car bombings, some Jewish members of Knesset all but accused their Arab counterparts of complicity in the attacks.

Likud legislator Moshe Katsav, who served in the previous government as the minister in charge of the Arab population, told Israeli Arab Knesset members, “Unintentionally you are responsible for those acts, because you sow the seeds of violence. Your statements influence the weak among you.”

Likud Knesset Member Yisrael Katz maintained that Hamas not only has branches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also within the Galilee and the Negev.

Katz also charged that the “Arab members of Knesset are among its leaders.”

Such comments sparked the fury of Israeli Arab legislators.

“I have never acted violently or urged violence,” said Azmi Beshara, who earlier this year became the first Israeli Arab to run for prime minister, “even though, during my entire adult life, I was exposed to police violence against myself and the Arab public.”

Beshara blamed the Likud Party for having convened the special session in order to incite public opinion against Israeli Arabs.

While most Israeli officials are stressing the need to curb the influence of the Islamic Movement, they are ruling out proposals, like one made by Katz, to outlaw the group.

Yosef Algazi, the Arab affairs analyst of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz warned this week that an all-out attack against the Islamic Movement could boomerang. He warned that such a move, rather than cooling tempers, could create growing hostility and alienation among a large number of Israel’s Arab citizens.

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