In Israel’s democracy, dissent has always been off limits to Arab citizens

The banning of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement may seem like a new low, but a closer look at history reveals how the state has been at war with Palestinian political organizations since its very inception.

Israel’s Palestinian citizens have never had an easy time organizing politically. The government’s decision to outlaw the northern branch of the Islamic Movement is only the latest — and perhaps most significant — example of the hurdles Arab citizens must face in their struggle for equality.

The state has been pushing for the ban for years, accusing the organization of maintaining links to groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It was the recent violence surrounding Al-Aqsa Mosque, however, that gave the Israeli government the green light it needed, after intimating that the group has been playing a role in inciting Palestinians in the current round of violence.

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/

On the face of it, the decision to ban the northern branch of the Islamic Movement — as well as 17 affiliated non-profits and charities in cities such as Nazareth and Jaffa — seems like an unprecedented new low in relations between the state and its Arab citizens. But a closer look reveals that the state has been at war with Arab political organizations long before the introduction of so-called “anti-democratic legislation” — even before millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were placed under military rule in 1967.

In the wake of the 1948 War, tens of thousands of Arab citizens of the nascent Jewish state were placed under the rule of a military government. Until 1966, when military rule was finally lifted (only nine months before the beginning of the occupation), the Galilee, the Negev and the Triangle were subject to a harsh permit regime, strict curfews and coerced collaboration with the Shin Bet. With the Arab population under the boot of the military governors and the state’s security services, the government was able to swiftly expropriate Arab-owned land — a process that continued even after the end of military rule.

The name of the game was control: the Israeli establishment viewed the Arabs who remained in the state — the ones who neither fled nor were expelled during the war — as a “fifth column,” one that at any time could revolt against its new masters. Thus, restrictions on Palestinian life inside Israel affected not only freedom of movement and trade, but also freedom of political organizing and thought.

In 1959, a group of nationalists and communists joined together to form the “Popular Front,” a short-lived organization that posed a direct challenge to the Communist Party of Israel (Maki), which while persecuted by the establishment, was one of the sole outlets for Palestinian grievances vis-a-vis the military regime. The Popular Front didn’t last long, with internal struggles between communists and nationalists — along with external harassment — leading to its dissolution. From the ashes of the group rose Al-Ard (“The Land”), the first Arab group that could actually pose a credible threat to the Israeli regime. The regime, in turn, worked quickly to quash the nascent movement.

Al-Ard predated the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization by nearly five years, and was the first movement to jumpstart the independent national movement for the Palestinians in Israel, connecting the struggle and demands of the Palestinians in Israel to Palestinian demands in general.

Taking a strident pan-Arab tone, which was increasingly popular among Arabs in Israel and the greater Arab world, it challenged both the Jewish state and the Communist Party, which as a joint Jewish-Arab party was busy circumnavigating issues of national identity. According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, Al-Ard’s earliest demands would later be adopted by Israel’s Palestinian political parties, such as a call for a secular, democratic state and the right of return for refugees.

Police arrest an Arab protester during an anti-war demonstration in Nazareth. (photo:
Israeli police officers arrest an Arab protester during an anti-war demonstration in Nazareth. (Illustrative photo:

According to Fouzi El-Asmar, one of the founders of the group, the movement was under constant surveillance, its publications were banned, and of its members either jailed or banished from their cities to the hinterlands of the Negev. The security services argued that the movement’s objectives threatened the existence of the State of Israel and its territorial integrity, taking a variety of measures to limit the movement’s political activity. These included shutting down the various iterations of its newspaper and refusing to register the movement as an economic corporation. Israel’s Defense Minister officially banned Al-Ard in 1964, and the Supreme Court disqualified the movement’s list of candidates from running in the 1965 general elections.

Al-Ard’s existence lasted a mere six years, yet it paved the way for much of what has occurred since in Palestinian politics in Israel. Groups such as Abnaa al-Balad, which calls for a total boycott of Israeli elections, as well as established political parties such as Balad, continue to face persecution by the Israeli authorities.

These days, Islamism has become the dominant political current across the Arab world — and over the years has become popular among Israel’s Palestinian citizens. The deadly ISIS attacks in Paris only buttressed the Israeli government’s desire to delegitimize the Islamic Movement, a desire that is in no way new. ”Israel must act as an example and spearhead the struggle against radical Islam, whose emissaries we saw massacring innocent people in Paris,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said on Tuesday, attempting to tie the bloodlust of the Islamic State to political Islam in general and the Islamic Movement specifically.

Israel may currently view political Islam as the big, new “threat,” but the story of Al-Ard — a secular organization — is a testament to the fact that oppositional ideologies are merely an excuse for the state to do the same things it has always done. The bottom line is that that there will always be a reason to be found in order to suppress Palestinian political organizing, and that the state doesn’t actually care whether Palestinians support Nasser, Marx, or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Newsletter banner