Doing God’s work: A look at the Islamic Movement in Israel

It grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, split into two branches over ideological differences, and is now joining forces with communists, feminists and Jews in the Joint List. This is the surprising story of the Islamic Movement in the Jewish state. 

By Dr. Nohad Ali

Palestinians protest at the entrance to the city of Umm al-Fahm, against the recent attack against a mosque in the city, April 21, 2014. On April 18, the door of a mosque in the city was set on fire and graffiti reading "Arabs out" was sprayed outside.
Members of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement protest at the entrance to the city of Umm al-Fahm, following an attack on a mosque in the city, April 21, 2014. (photo:

Much has been said in the Israeli media about the union between the four Arab parties leading up to the March 17 election. But while the Jewish-Arab Hadash party, nationalist Balad and Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al are well-known to most Israeli Jews, Ra’am (United Arab List) remains something of a mystery. And when we do hear about them? It’s usually in the context of “the Islamists” and how they’re stances on women, polygamy and the LGBTQ community affect the Joint Arab List.

Much less attention is paid to the decision by Ra’am — which forms the parliamentary framework for the southern branch of the Islamic Movement — to unite with Communists, secularists, feminists, Jews and others. The very decision of the southern branch to run for the Knesset is not self-evident, especially in such a framework.

The heads of the southern branch themselves have stated that the establishment of the Joint List does not mean there are no more ideological differences between the parties. On the contrary, they state that “this is a moment of political maturity, where we have learned to agree on the similarities between us, and disagree on the differences,” and clarify that “we are not imposing our opinions on our partners, and we will not allow them to impose theirs on us.” They view the Joint List as a protest by the Arab public, as well as an attempt to improve its status among the Israeli public.

But who is “The Islamic Movement in ‘48 Palestine,” as it is known by its members? What is its origins? What differentiates the southern branch, which is participating in the elections under the leadership of Masud Ganaim, from the northern one, led by Sheikh Raed Salah, which boycotts the elections? The answers to these questions can be found in the history of the movement’s growth throughout the 20th century, and the division that occurred between its two branches, which began with Ra’am’s participation in the 1996 elections.

Pre-state roots

Some claim that if the 20th century was known as the century of science, then the 21st century will likely be the century of religion. In reality, the return to religion began in the 19th century with the rise of the Evangelical Church in the United States, and quickly crossed borders and cultures.

This wave did not skip over the Arab and Islamic worlds. The first signal of the return to religion in our region came between the Six Day War (what Arabs call the “Naksa” or “the setback”), in which the Arab armies were humiliated by the IDF, and the Yom Kippur War (“The War of Victory” or the “Ramadan War”), in which the Arab armies had the upper hand. At the same time, the Arabs, and especially the Muslims of secular persuasions (nationalists and socialists) became wary of the Pan-Arabists who ruled Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and more. Secularism was replaced by a return to religion, which was seen to have a savior-like quality, especially in the wake of the victory in the Yom Kippur War, which took on a religious tone, since it erupted during Ramadan.

Egyptian fighters belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood photographed during the 1948 War.
Egyptian fighters belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood photographed during the 1948 War.

The roots of the Islamic Movement in Israel are rooted in the early days of the British Mandate, when the newly established Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt began establishing its first branches in Palestine. However, the movement only saw significant growth inside Israel with the religious awakening in the Arab world in the 1970s. The movement began as a religious-social-political outlet for a national and religious minority, which viewed the Jewish character — and its Western orientation — as problematic.

However, one of the most prominent characteristics of the movement in Israel is the integration of an ethnic and national Palestinian identity as an integral part of of the identity of its members and supporters. The integration of a national identity into a religious framework is unique among its sister-movements in the Muslim and Arab world, which view the national struggle as a handicap on their priorities — and often see it as clashing with the religious struggle.

After Oslo

Since the formation of the Knesset and the participation of Arabs in Israeli elections — at first in multitudes, while the last elections saw the participation of a little more than half — the Knesset has provided Arab voters a stage for protesting and voicing their opinions, nothing more. The Arab parties, who began as “satellite parties” before officially becoming the four major Arab parties (including Hadash), were never invited to take part in a single coalition.

The Arab voter, who throws his support behind his authentic parties, was always destined for the opposition. The influence of the Arab parties on the legislation process has been minor, while their role in Knesset committees is marginal. This does not stem from the quality of the MKs belonging to the Arab parties, but the way the Knesset is structured. This is the point of departure for every discussion on voting patterns among the Arab public, as well as their choice of different political currents to participate or boycott the elections.

After its growth in the 70s, the Islamist Movement found success in Israeli municipal elections. The results of local council elections between 1981-1989 show that there is hardly a single village where the movement didn’t make gains. In 1989, the movement won its first mayoral race in Umm al-Fahm, the second largest Arab city in Israel.

The victory in Umm al-Fahm, the beginning of the peace process in the early 90s and the signing of the Oslo accords, led some of the leaders of the Islamic Movement to began acting on a national level. On the eve of the 1992 elections, Sheikh Darwish, leader and founder of the movement, and his supporters, suggested that the movement not remain limited to local elections but also take part in nationals ones, and support a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sheikh Raed Salah and Sheikh Kamal Khatib staunchly opposed Darwish’s vision, arguing that participating in the Knesset will not advance the movement, but rather paralyze it. They further stated that Arab MKs are destined to fail in promoting the interests of the Arab public in the Knesset, and that Muslim representatives cannot sit in an Israeli parliament, since it would require them to swear allegiance to a state that defines itself as Jewish. Salah and Khatib were also far more uncompromising on issues of a peace agreement, and were critical of the Oslo process.

In the run-up to the 1996 elections, Darwish and his supporters decided to go one step further. They believed that participating in the Knesset elections was not an end but a means, which would allow them to both influence the decision-making process and improve the status of the Arab public. They believed that there is no religious injunction against participating in elections, and clarified that should, one day, participating in elections clash with the principles of faith, they would cease participating.

This led Darwish and his followers to join forces with the Arab Democratic Party (which split off from Labor during the First Intifada), and together formed Ra’am, which received four seats in the 14th Knesset. The party received five seats in the 15th Knesset, but slid down to two in the following election. Ra’am has run together with Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al party in the last three elections, held four seats in the last Knesset.

Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement and former mayor of Umm al-Fahm. (photo: Oren Ziv/
Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement and former mayor of Umm al-Fahm. (photo: Oren Ziv/

In their public speeches over the years, Ra’am MKs have focused primarily on religious issues, such as regaining control of Waqf property from the state. When it comes to legislation, however, they vote along with the rest of the Arab parties on national and civil issues. Among the MKs from the movement, Sheikh Abdulmalik Dehamshe won recognition for his achievements in legislation.

The big split

Darwish’s decision in ‘96 caused a deep split among the different camps of the movement, which the media nicknamed “the northern branch” (under Salah and Khatib) and “the southern branch” (under Darwish). Since then, they have come to represent two different Islamic movements with different internal mechanisms. With that, the two branches continue using the same name, they both look to the same ideological foundations, and most of the leaders of both branches were educated in the same religious institutions in Hebron and Nablus.

Researchers of the Islamic Movement suggest different reasons for the split. According to one approach, the northern branch undermines the state’s right to exist, and claims that it was established by force on Palestinian land, which is Islamic holy ground. A second approach views the split as a result of an internal power struggle, and that the position on Knesset elections only serves as a cover for competition between leaders of the movement and its direction in the future.

Leaders of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement deny both these explanations. In interviews that I have conducted with them since 1998 until recently, they claimed that since the Arabs have had no effect on decision-making since they began voting. The Zionist nature of the parliament, they explain, is intended solely to provide them a platform so Israel can show the world how democratic it is. Similar sentiments were recently published in the northern branch’s manifesto in the lead-up to the elections. However, one must note that the heads of the Islamic Movement do not call on their followers to boycott elections. This message is made clear behind the scenes.

Despite the split, the two branches continue participating in municipal elections — usually separately — although almost never in the same village or town. This is not a result of organizational coordination, but rather of local initiatives, when the will of the movement’s rank-and-file overcame that of its leaders.

Doing God’s work

Over the course of the ‘90s, both branches of the Islamic Movement made significant gains on the municipal level. That all changed in 2003 when the heads of the northern branch decided, surprisingly, to stop participating in municipal politics — aside from Umm al-Fahm, the bastion of the movement, where Salah previously served as mayor. The decision, which came at a time of unprecedented popularity for the movement, posed a serious challenge to the Israeli establishment, politicians and Arab leaders.

Here, too, researchers have found three reasons for the northern branch’s decision. The first approach believes that it stems from a radicalization and refusal to recognize the State of Israel. The second approach believes that it is a result of the northern branch becoming weaker, especially after the events of October 2000 and the arrest of Sheikh Raed Salah. According to this approach, a change in circumstances may lead the northern branch to participate in municipal elections, and perhaps even national ones.

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The heads of the northern branch rule out both approaches. “We do not need to pledge allegiance to the State of Israel every Monday and Thursday, nor should we kiss the blue ID cards it gave us. Our citizenship is a given, and we are law-abiding citizens,” I was told in interviews. The leadership figures also state that they stopped participating when they were at the height of their popularity, rather than during a low point.

These testimonies lead me to support the third approach, which gives a religious-fundamentalist explanation for the decision. Politics has diverted the movement’s attention from its main goal: the Islamisization of the masses, developing new believers and establishing a society “able to stand on its own two feet“ — al-mujtama’ al-‘asami. The heads of the northern branch agree with this approach. “We have only lost by participating in municipal elections,” the leaders told in 2003.

“Participating in elections strengthens the competition and the inner-splits among people from the same towns, thus preventing a general consensus on the activities of the Islamic Movement.” Thus, the northern branch announced in 2013 that it would no longer run in the mayoral race in Umm al-Fahm.

Will the Joint List mend ties?

Since the split in 1996 endless attempts have been made to unite the two branches of the movement. Before the 2012 elections, several leaders of the southern branch considered rescinding their participation in exchange for reconciliation. However, the early elections disrupted their plans and left the southern branch in the Knesset. It is worth noting that today, the two branches cooperate over several issues and projects. However, the chances for real reconciliation are low.

Masud Ganaim of Ra'am (left) shakes hands with Hadash's Dov Khenin. (photo: Oren Ziv/
Masud Ganaim of Ra’am (left) shakes hands with Hadash’s Dov Khenin. (photo: Oren Ziv/

Some of those who have researched the Islamic Movement believe that the establishment of the Joint Arab List will push the leaders of the northern branch to change their attitude toward voting in national elections. Some major public figures from the Arab community even tried to convince the heads of the northern branch to support the List, but the aforementioned manifesto left no room for doubt: their position is steadfast, and the Joint List has not caused them to change course. For now, however, the heads of the northern branch are neither attacking the Joint List or trying to sabotage its chances.

Those in the southern branch, however, feel that the Joint List is working in harmony, and are promising their voters that the establishment of the List is not merely a tactical step. They promise to “disappoint” those who wish it to disband immediately after elections, and are preparing for a larger than ever Knesset representation.

Dr. Nohad Ali is a sociologist, an expert on Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism, Jewish-Arab relations and Arab women and violence. This article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.