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Israeli Arab's rising voice of opposition

Islamist views of Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement of the North, worry many Israeli Jews.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 26, 2006


With his graying beard, shalwar chemise tunic, and madrassah-style cap, Sheikh Raed Salah looks more like a Pakistani mullah than most of the "Palestinians inside," his term for the 1.4 million Arabs like himself who live in Israel.

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Other terms that Sheikh Salah speaks in would easily make most Israelis uncomfortable.

The charismatic leader of the Islamic Movement of the North warns supporters, as he did through the holy month Ramadan, that the Al-Aqsa Mosque – Islam's third-holiest place – is more in danger every day. The threat: Israel.

Israel "will not survive another 20 years" and Jerusalem will soon be transformed into the world capital of Islam, he says in an interview at his office here, which is adorned with traditional Palestinian embroidery and a glittering mother-of-pearl model of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, the famous Muslim shrine.

If opinions like Salah's existed in the past, they rarely went beyond the mosque. But Salah has become increasingly vocal and popular inside the Jewish state – buoyed by what seem to be deteriorating prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, wider regional unrest, and the growth of anti-US sentiment.

"The official policy of America is a destructive policy to Palestinian ambitions," he intones in carefully worded, literary Arabic, with an English-speaking assistant observing carefully another translator's words; Salah is often misquoted. "A martyr is killed by an occupation soldier, but with an American weapon backed by American policy and justified by the UN Security Council in America," he says.

A couple of years shy of 50, he first gained respect as a poet. In the 1990s, the father of eight was mayor for a time of Umm el-Fahm. The little city, whose name means "mother of understanding," is inside Israel but sits at the seam of the West Bank, slated under the Oslo-launched peace process to become the heartland of the Palestinian state.

Salah's decision to stay away from national politics has given him a kind of popularity no other Israeli-Arab leader appears to enjoy. The party deals instead with the issues of funding for municipal budgets, a sore point since Arab towns and schools generally receive lower allocations than Jewish ones. While other Arab politicians get tainted, either from wheeling and dealing or failing to deliver, Salah's reputation among followers is impeccable.

"One part of the Islamic movement runs for the Knesset and is very much involved in Israeli politics," says Hashem Mahameed, a former mayor and Knesset member affiliated with a left-wing socialist party. "The movement of Sheikh Raed Salah is trying to play the role of the pure Muslims who don't want to lie and play political games. Religion tells you to be straight as much as you can, and politics tell you the opposite."

When Salah's Islamic Movement of the North first came to power here, says Mr. Mahameed, secular people feared that an Iranian-style Islamic Revolution had arrived. His daughter stopped feeling comfortable going out as she chooses – without an Islamic head covering. The atmosphere mellowed, he says, but there is still a feeling of this city in Israel being run by Islamists. "They give money and all kinds of financial aid to people who are in need," he says, adding that the group has built more than 25 mosques in Umm el-Fahm, a town of about 43,000.