UMM AL FAHM, Israel — He’s an Israeli-born Islamist whom the government considers so dangerous he’s been banned from stepping foot in Jerusalem.
Yet his prison stints over the last decade for allegedly funding terrorist groups, inciting violence and spitting on an Israeli security officer — all of which he denies — have only served to make Sheik Raed Saleh, 53, extremely popular and influential among Arab Israelis.
After returning this month from London, where he successfully fought deportation by British immigration officials who cited his controversial views, Saleh received a hero’s welcome. The former Umm al Fahm mayor told the Los Angeles Times that he is preparing to resume his campaign to organize Arab Israelis against what he sees as systematic discrimination.
What does being an Israeli mean to you?
I am not an Israeli. I am a Muslim, Arab Palestinian living on my land within the Israeli establishment, and all aspects of my life are in danger because of the Israeli establishment.
Does Israel have a right to exist?
These philosophical questions do not contribute anything. But Israel is undoubtedly a fact.
You’ve been quoted as predicting that Israel is going to collapse in the coming years. It looks pretty strong. How will that happen?
What I said was taken out of context. I said this in front of the head of the appeals court in Haifa after I found myself in detention without reason and after spending 11/2 years in prison, even though I was innocent. I told the judge that God almighty does not like injustice, and if the Israeli establishment continues with this injustice against me and others, then this injustice would not give it a chance to exist past the year 2020.
You’ve been called anti-Semitic.
This is an unfounded accusation because I am a Muslim with Semitic, Arab Palestinian principles. I am opposed to racism and hatred, and I am against anti-Semitism. It says in the Koran that we have created you males and females and made you nations and tribes to get to know each other. It means that people were created to know each other and not to fight each other.
Why do you think Israel considers you such a dangerous person?
Israel considers all who object to its policies as dangerous. It wants everyone on Earth not to think, to cut out their own tongues and not to criticize Israel’s unjust behavior and its occupation policies. There are many people other than me that Israel considers as dangerous. The list is very long.
If that’s true and Israel is so unjust, why aren’t you locked away in some prison cell right now? Doesn’t it say something about Israel’s tolerance and democracy that you can exist as an Israeli Islamist, and you can voice these criticisms?
I do not think it makes sense to answer this question based on my personal case. I am one member of my people. The question is not how Israel treats me. The question is how Israel treats my entire people. I am now outside prison, but there are thousands in prison. It is true I am now outside prison, but in 2010 I was in prison. I am now outside prison, but I am now waiting for four Israeli trials. I am outside prison, that is correct, but every day you read about Israel arresting 10 or 20 of my Palestinian people. Not a day passes without arrests. In short, we live in a situation where we are pursued by the Israeli establishment.
Israelis often say that Arabs in Israel have it better than Arabs anywhere in the region in terms of freedom of expression, economic comforts and democratic rights. Don’t you think they have a point?
This is an old slogan. I am against this question on principle. I am not a commodity for them to move me from one place to another. I have my land, where I have my history, where I have my present and my future. I will not allow any person to decide my future. I determine my own future.
But can you point to another country in the region where Arabs have it better overall?
I totally reject this statement. Israel isn’t granting me a favor by allowing me to live on my land. I do not live at the expense of the Israeli establishment. On the contrary, it lives at my expense.
If the situation is so bad for Arab Israelis, why haven’t we seen the kind of uprising that we’ve seen in other Arab countries? Why isn’t the “Arab Spring” catching on among Arab Israelis?
We are not keeping quiet about injustice for one second. We choose to adopt peaceful ways to fight injustice, and we still follow this method. But, unfortunately, the Israeli establishment confronted us by opening fire … [during Arab Israeli protests in 2000].
OK, but state police shot at Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans and they are shooting at Syrians now. It seems Arabs in Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank are missing the “Arab Spring.” Why aren’t there mass protests in Israel?
There are mass protests. I invite you tomorrow [to upcoming rallies]. There will be around 50,000 of our people. This is one example. Our activities are continuous and we move from one issue to another.
Arabs in Israel are 20%. This is a sizable minority. Do you think that Arab Israelis share part of the responsibility for not being able to galvanize that population into greater political power?
The Arabs here are not a perfect society. They have their faults. Yes, they bear responsibility for some of the mistakes, which they can change. Therefore, we are taking this course, which is to strengthen our collective role to represent everyone and the rights of everyone. For example, we can establish general committees that would look after the land, look after the economy, look after the health, and even sports and youth and foreign relations with the world around us.
That sounds like a separate government.
We do not want to enter into a discussion over the name. What is important for us is the role we will take.
One of the big Israeli fears is that Arab Israelis will increase in number and eventually take over control of the country, which would no longer have a Jewish majority. Is that the plan?
This fear is in and of itself a deliberate accusation against me. I reject it. I am here. Did I come at the expense of someone else, or is my presence legal? If my presence is legal, it is my right to live my life. Those who consider me a danger are telling me that my existence is not legitimate.