In the aftermath of the San Bernardino and Paris terror attacks, perhaps the world will begin to understand that Israelis cope with a local version of this same wave of terror. Americans fear additional acts of Islamic “lone-wolf” terror on American soil. And Europe begins to fathom that the threat of ISIS is not limited to Syria and Iraq. In Israel that threat is characterized by lethal and spontaneous terrorist attacks every few hours, fueled by incessant and bloodcurdling incitement by Palestinian leaders, clerics and other public figures against Israel and its citizens. It is no wonder so many Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have been moved to stab, shoot and plow their cars into random Israelis.
These acts of terror cannot be prevented entirely. Effort is directed at limiting and containing these acts through increased police and military presence, shoot-to-kill orders against terrorists and destroying convicted terrorists’ homes.
The majority of this violence is perpetrated by West Bank and East Jerusalem residents. There seems to be an effort to limit the “spillover” to Israeli Arab citizens, who account for more than 20% of Israel’s total population and have complete democratic freedoms. Those freedoms can be easily exploited, just as they were by those homegrown terrorists in Paris.
The recent decision to outlaw the organization called The Northern Wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel was courageous and justified. But is it correct and smart? The answer is unclear but will become clear in the future. Contrary to his political behavior, this time Benjamin Netanyahu did not delay a tough decision nor did he distance himself from the responsibility. He circled around the issue for some time, analyzed it in depth and held endless consultations, but in the end he made a bold decision. Credit should also be given to Minister of Internal Security Gilad Arden for his influential role behind the scenes. Arden allowed the police force, which is under the responsibility of his ministry, to take the lead and submit its independent and alleged “out of the box” legal opinion. Netanyahu reportedly considered that opinion as strongly as the legal opinion submitted by the more elite Shin Bet Intelligence organization.
The Shin Bet has prevented this decision from being made for several years. You certainly cannot accuse them of being followers of the radical Sheikh Rayed Salah, the charismatic and fomenting founder and head of the organization.
As Ben Caspit commented about this decision, “The Shin Bet thinks along more practical and pragmatic terms and concluded that the advantages of this move might be smaller than the potential damage. Not everything that is just, is necessarily smart.”
By way of background, the Northern Wing was originally part of the so-called “Islamic Movement” in Israel, which encourages the Islamic religion amongst Israeli Arabs. The movement has the same ideology and is affiliated with the broader Muslim Brotherhood movement, which strives for an Islamic awakening under the slogan, “Islam is the answer.” The main areas of activity are religious (Islamic education and services) and social welfare. But the primary difference between the Israeli branch and the Muslim Brotherhood is the emphasis that the former places on encouraging Palestinian nationalism, whereas the latter is committed to cementing Muslim religious identity and repressing ethnic and national identity.
In 1996 the movement split into two wings over the issue of running or continuing to boycott the elections. The Northern Wing adopted a more extreme doctrine than the more moderate Southern Wing. The Northern Wing continues to boycott the Knesset, while members of the Southern Wing have been elected and represent Arab parties in the Knesset. The split began two years earlier with the signing of the Oslo Accords. The Southern Wing, despite not recognizing the right of Israel to exist, supported the Palestinian Authority in signing the agreements, and the Northern Wing opposed them, reflecting their ideological alignment with Hamas.
The Jewish majority in Israel became aware of the Northern Wing during the second Intifada. The movement played a key role in inciting and encouraging the violence that saw the murder of over 1,000 Israelis. After Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in 2000, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority used the visit to provoke the violent uprising. The Northern Wing joined in and then took the lead amongst Israeli Arabs. The movement adopted the battle cry “defend Al-Aksa,” perpetrating the myth that resonates so strongly amongst Palestinians, that Israel is trying to destroy the Al-Aksa Mosque and take over the Temple Mount.
The Orr Commission was set up to investigate the circumstances and causes of the uprising of Israeli Arabs at the start of the Second Intifada, during which police killed 13 Israeli Arabs (13 deaths is the hourly toll in Syria). The commission placed solid blame on the Northern Wing and specifically Salah, and claimed that their incitement had a “palpable contribution to the flare-up of violence amongst the Arab population and went a long way to October events (as this uprising is referred to).” Despite the recommendation to outlaw the movement and arrest the leaders, particularly Salah, this was not done. The belief was that Israel could contain and deal with the incitement, which would lose steam, and that this would be a more effective than outlawing the growing movement and arresting the popular Salah, which could create a backlash with very undesirable consequences. Salah has never stopped inciting, stating that Israel has no right to exist on any of the land that is part of the country, that every Jew that visits the Temple Mount defiles and contaminates it, and that the Western Wall is a historical hoax, set up as forward base to expel the Muslims from the area.
Over the last 15 years, the movement’s raison d’etre has become “defending Al-Aqsa.” They have set up a subsidiary organization called Morabitun (the name given to various historical defenders of Islam throughout history) that daily transports Arabs from throughout Israel from their homes in cities and villages to the Temple Mount. They sit around praying and waiting for the short windows when Jews are allowed to visit (Jews are forbidden to pray on the Mount) in order to provoke, insult and generally harass Jewish visitors. In addition, the Morabitun have apparently played a key role in smuggling the weapons that were found when police raided the mosque several months ago.
The recent outbreak of daily violence, which has killed over 30 Israelis, injured hundreds and created a new reality of lone-wolf terrorists who act on their own, can be traced directly to the agitation of the Palestinian leadership, particularly the Northern Wing, that Israel is trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount and destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque. “Intifada of individuals” terrorists who have been caught alive have stated their primary motivation was that they had been told by Palestinianleaders that Israel was about to expel Muslims from the Temple Mount and build the Third Temple where Al-Aqsa stands.
The Northern Wing’s political relevance comes almost exclusively from their incitement and propaganda about the Temple Mount. Despite waning popularity, Salah and his movement have played another central role in fomenting the current violence. The government is determined not to allow him to repeat his actions of October 2000. The crazed and hysterical ravings about the Temple Mount can no longer be overlooked. Almost on an hourly basis, the Temple Mount agitation causes violent and frenzied actions by Muslims against Jews.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Salah and his movement have lost popularity over recent years. Mass rallies that routinely drew 50,000 just a few years ago seldom attract more than 10,000. Defending Al-Aqsa is Salah’s only relevant card, and this is what the government intends to eliminate. Therefore, the risk in outlawing the movement now seems to be lower. But there is a chance this could allow them to reinvent themselves. As long as they were a legal organization, they could be followed, neutralized and contained. This step could lead to a “romanticization” of the movement and create a kind of ISIS effect that will turn it into something “cool” for young and disenchanted Muslims. But again, the answer to this question will only be known somewhere down the road. For now, the politicians took responsibility and made a bold decision, and that is something not overly common for most of them.
The Shin Bet recommended that the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood should be the organization outlawed. Sisi’s Egypt already took this step. The Shin Bet claims that the Brotherhood is the primary agitator of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Their family tree included Hamas in Gaza. Intelligence gathered proves the direct connection between the Hamas leadership and Salah, and the pipeline of money between them. When the Northern Wing was outlawed, its bank account had over 100 million shekels.
In the end, the Shin Bet’s recommendation was not approved because it would have been more difficult to enforce and also for fear of endangering our already damaged relationship with Turkey and perhaps even Jordan. The recommendation of the police to outlaw the Northern Wing was comprehensive and thorough and included opinions by all regional commanders and their advisors for Arab affairs. The expected backlash amongst Israeli Muslims would not be overly violent and would be containable. It was apparent that most ministers had come to the conclusion that even if the reaction of Arab Israelis would be harsh and extreme, it still would have been approved. Many of them believe it is high time that the rule of law is imposed on this organization that has flown in the face of law for so many years.
The decision was made in early November. The announcement and implementation was held back until a good time was found. After the Paris massacres, the government’s decision became much easier to explain. There would be no mass arrest of the tens of thousands of members nor closure of the charitable institutions of the movement, which have no connection to incitement. The leaders would be arrested, bank accounts would be seized and the incitement would stop, and if new organizations sprung up as fronts for the Northern Wing, they too would be closed. Everything else can continue to function, and the rank and file members can go about their business.
Given the organization and specifically Salah’s complicit role in inciting and fanning the uprising of October 2000 and his continued attempts to fan the flames of violence around the subject of the Temple Mount, why wasn’t this step taken long ago? I believe that the reason lies in the fact that the political and security leadership in Israel, after analyzing the current international wave of ISIS-inspired Islamic terrorism that has raised its head in Paris and San Bernardino and is threatening more violence throughout the United States and Europe, and is now such a common occurrence throughout the Middle East (Syria, Beirut, Tunis and of course Israel), has concluded that the violence can only be stopped with the eradication of ISIS. This is not something that can be controlled by Israel. For now, Israeli security forces have been quite effective in thwarting much of the current violence. But they are unable to eliminate it because most of it is undetectable until it occurs. It is inspired by incitement, and stopping, or at least limiting incitement, will have a visible contribution. Thus the move against the Northern Wing.
Furthermore, the most important consideration for Israel is to try to separate the West Bank Palestinians from Israeli Arabs and ensure that this wave of violence has limited or no impact in motivating Israeli Muslim citizens to commit acts of terror. This is another important reason the government acted against the Northern Wing, which is an Israeli Arab organization.
Will the move to outlaw the Northern Wing and arrest Salah and the other leaders achieve the desired result, or will it have the opposite effect? So far, there has been little backlash, and Israeli Arabs, most of whom seem to prefer the benefits and relative abundance of Israeli citizenship, have not acted on their criticism following the decision. But as we have seen, for West Bank and East Jerusalem Arabs, the unfounded concern over Al-Aqsa can cause educated, seemingly rationale and successful, family-oriented individuals (men and women) to “lose it” and go on a rampage against unarmed Israeli civilians. Therefore, any move to prevent incitement is welcome and necessary. In the case of Salah and the Northern Wing, it should have been done long ago. Given the current Al-Aqsa motivation amongst Palestinian Arabs, this decision is better late than never.
Mylan Tanzer is an American native who moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed, and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.