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News Analysis: Militant Islamic Movement is Radicalizing Israeli Arabs

The rally looked like it could have been held in downtown Tehran, not in the heart of Israel.

Hundreds of cars, filled with bearded men and scarfed women, headed toward Umm el-Fahm, the second largest Arab town in Israel after Nazareth. It is also a stronghold of the Islamic Movement, a political grouping that has a growing following in the Israeli Arab community.

The cars were arriving last Friday for the movement’s fifth annual rally, which, like the ones in previous years, focused on obtaining, and maintaining, an Islamic hold on Jerusalem.

The issue of Jerusalem, which prevented Israel and the Palestinians from reaching a peace accord at July’s Camp David summit, was the focus of militant rhetoric at the rally, which took place at Umm el-Fahm’s “peace stadium.” The 35,000-seat stadium filled up soon after prayers. Latecomers were turned away for lack of seats.

Thanks to a sophisticated public address system, speeches at the rally resounded over the hills surrounding the stadium, reaching hundreds of homes.

The speakers at the rally sent a loud and clear message: While Israel is busy trying to reach a historic compromise with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat regarding Jerusalem, the Islamic Movement will never compromise when it comes to the Holy City.

When it comes to the Al-Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount, they said, there can be no flexibility.

This prompted the crowd to chant repeatedly, “In spirit and blood, we shall redeem Al-Aksa.”

A huge model of the mosque – within the Islamic world, third in religious importance only to the holy shrines at Mecca and Medina – stood on the stage of the stadium.

Chains, representing Zionist shackles, surrounded the model, which was topped with a weeping eye – symbolizing Palestinian tears for the mosque.

As in previous years, the rally was held under the slogan, “The Al-Aksa Mosque Is in Danger.”

“Even giving up one stone of Al-Aksa means giving up all of Al-Aksa,” declared Sheik Raed Salah Mahajneh, the mayor of Umm el-Fahm and leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel. “Giving up even one piece of earth, equals giving up all of Al-Aksa.”

According to Mahajneh, the Islamic world has exclusive rights to all the holy sites in Jerusalem – and Israel has none.

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.

Mahajneh has been a driving force behind Islamic construction projects on the Temple Mount in recent years – projects carried out despite the protests of archaeologists who maintain the work is causing damage to the site.

In his speech, he charged that Israel was damaging the Al-Aksa Mosque, which prompted the Israeli daily Ma’ariv to criticize his “incendiary” rhetoric.

In an editorial this week, Ma’ariv said, “It is doubtful whether any leader” of the Islamic Movement “believes that Israel really intends to harm Islamic holy sites.”

But, Ma’ariv’s editors continued, this did not deter the speakers at the rally “from inflaming the masses with the promise to ‘spill blood, not tears’ if Israel dares to ‘touch the stones of the mosque.'”

It is no wonder, they wrote, that Mahajneh and his friends are “accused of incitement and divisiveness.”

The rally in Umm el-Fahm took place at the end of a tense week in relations between Israeli officials and Israeli Arabs.

Days before the rally was held, the police announced that they had arrested 12 residents of Umm el-Fahm for weapons possession and for conspiring to kill Arabs they suspected of collaborating with Israel.

However, after a widely publicized news conference in which the chief of the northern command of Israel’s police force depicted the group as potential terrorists, the charge sheets revealed a different picture.

According to the documents, the 12 were linked to the underworld, suspected of having set afire three homes and a business to avenge the murder of a relative. A cache of arms that the police uncovered was apparently intended for ordinary criminal, not political, purposes.

In the eyes of the Islamic Movement, this was proof that the authorities were harassing the group’s followers.

They made similar accusations after police asked the attorney general to press charges against two Israeli Arab legislators – Mohammed Barakah of the Hadash Party and Abdulmalik Dehamshe of the United Arab List – for calling on Israeli Arabs to forcibly resist any effort to demolish Arab homes deemed illegal by the authorities.

Israeli Arab leaders charged that this was a deliberate campaign against them, orchestrated by Alik Ron, the commander of the police force’s northern command.

Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was recently named acting foreign minister, reacted by giving Ron his full backing.

Leaders of the Islamic Movement regarded this as yet another indication that the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak has little interest in improving relations with Israel’s Arabs.

“Our gravest mistake was the support we gave Ehud Barak in the last elections,” said Mahajneh.

Apparently, there are a growing number of Israeli Arabs feeling equally frustrated.

Last week, Israel Television publicized a survey showing that a third of Israel’s Arabs do not believe that they should be loyal to the state.

Israeli policymakers, though alarmed, are trying to find a course of action to deal with such expressions of militancy.

“One needs to cope with the roots of the matter,” said Science Minister Matan Vilnai, who heads a government committee on Arab affairs.

He suggested that the government should make a wholehearted effort to improve the standard of living of the Arab population in Israel – a move he said would pull the rug out from under the Islamic Movement’s rhetoric.

In a rare expression of self-criticism, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said this week that no Israeli government, except for that of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, dealt seriously with the problems of Israel’s Arabs.

The roots of the problem are social and economic, and this has led to the increasing popularity of radical Islam among Israeli Arabs.

Sneh suggested that Israel should attempt to change the situation of Israel’s Arab community – and simultaneously fight Islamic terrorism.

He warned that unless the government invested more in social services for Israeli Arabs, it would have to use other resources to cope with security problems.

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