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.

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.

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.

Similarities between Salah's group and another controversial Islamic party are numerous. In the Palestinian territories, Hamas's political wing swept to power in elections nine months ago largely because so many people saw them as a party of clean hands.

To Israeli authorities, the similarities were a little too striking. In 2003, Salah was arrested on suspicion of raising millions of dollars for Hamas. He was released two years later in a deal that bars him from going abroad and requires him to check in with an officer every month. The charges against him were a "mockery," Salah says.

Still, they made him even more popular. When he came back a year ago this summer, his image was everywhere – on posters and children's T-shirts.

"This definitely strengthened his position and popularity within the Arab sector," explain Professor Elie Rekhess, director of the Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Studies at Tel Aviv University. "If there were a poll run today to establish who is the most popular leader in Israel, he would be up there. His outer appearance might be misleading, because he's very quiet and low-keyed, but he's very powerful. He certainly sees political Islam as a major factor in the formulation in the coming years in Israel, and he sees his party as having a strong say."

One prominent fear that has surfaced among Israelis is that Palestinian Arabs, be they residents of the territories or Israeli citizens, will become a majority in the areas under Israel's control and demand a one-state solution to the conflict. This demographic dilemma has driven the Israeli political dynamic for the past few years.

Now, the tenuous state of Arab- Jewish relations within Israel's borders looks ready to become more unsettled.

The nation's eyes have been focused on Avigdor Lieberman, a Russian-born Israeli politician who has advocated a "transfer" of Arabs who live near the Green Line, Israel's 1967 border, into the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Lieberman and his Israel Beitainu ("Israel is Our Home") party are about to join the Kadima-led government.

One of the prime targets of Lieberman's controversial plan would be Umm el-Fahm.

"Lieberman sitting in the government," says Itamar Inbari, the Arab affairs reporter for the Maariv newspaper, "is as if saying 'yes' to transfer and to marginalizing the Arabic sector."

Salah says that Lieberman's entry into the Israeli government does not bode well for the region.

"The participation of Lieberman in this government will only add to its confusion, and will lead it to take quick and irresponsible decisions," he says. "I would not be surprised that the current government would welcome the participation of Lieberman. And if this happens, then the whole region is going to face big difficulties and surprises, whose hardness and consequences no one is aware of but God almighty."

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