In a move officials defended as needed for security and critics called political persecution, Israel on Tuesday outlawed a chapter of the Islamic Movement, declaring membership in the group to be a criminal offense.
Israel’s security Cabinet banned the movement’s northern chapter, which is headed by firebrand cleric Sheik Raed Salah.
A government statement accused the group of a years-long “mendacious campaign of incitement” that it said included falsely accusing Israel of a plot against Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque, instigating paid provocation at the holy site and fueling the recent wave of attacks on Israelis.
Accusations that Israeli officials are limiting access to the mosque or intend to do so have fueled weeks of knifings and other attacks by Palestinians against Israeli citizens.
Before Tuesday’s announcement, Israeli security forces raided the offices of 17 institutes and foundations associated with the group, shut them down and confiscated computers, documents and money. Authorities also froze bank accounts suspected to have been used to finance activities against state security, police said.
Israeli media reported that seized documents indicated the group received considerable donations that originated in foreign countries such as Turkey and Qatar but government officials wouldn’t comment on the source or purpose of the money.
“Democracy must defend itself,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who accused the group of undermining the state, maintaining close ties with the militant movement Hamas and seeking to replace Israel with an Islamic caliphate, like other militant extremists.
“We have nothing against Islam,” said Netanyahu, maintaining that Israel’s Muslim citizens “enjoy full equal rights.” However, he said, Israel would continue acting against those who “incite and encourage terrorism.”
The move drew fierce protest from Arab lawmakers, leaders and activists.
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab Israeli lawmaker, denounced what he called an “explicitly politically motivated” step and accused Netanyahu’s government of “looking for a scapegoat” for the situation for which it was itself responsible.
Tibi told reporters that the move is a “cynical exploitation of the abhorrent crime in France,” and vowed to continue warning of Israeli moves on the holy site “even if Israel calls this incitement.”
“The timing is hardly coincidental,” said lawmaker Taleb Abu Arar in a media interview, adding that outlawing “an integral part of Arab society” was an infringement of the minority’s rights.
Abu Arar said that an “enlightened democracy guarantees freedom of expression and worship” and that defending Al Aqsa mosque was legitimate. The state should deal with incitement or any other violation of the law in court, he said, “but this is collective punishment.”
Some members of Israel’s intelligence circles reportedly expressed concern during discussions that the move would cause fierce antagonism among Arab Israelis and wind up being counterproductive.
While strongly supporting action against Salah, former senior police commander Alik Ron said holding individuals accountable and prosecuting them for incitement and violence were preferable to sweeping measures. Such moves, he said, should be applied equally to Arab and Jewish extremists.
“The people who burned the Dawabshe family have not been prosecuted, I find this unacceptable,” Ron told Israel Radio, referring to the unknown assailants who burned down a Palestinian home in July, killing a baby boy and his parents.
On Tuesday, opposition lawmaker Issawi Frej petitioned the nation’s Supreme Court, asking that Netanyahu and Yaalon be forced to put the killers on trial. Yaalon recently said Israel knew the identity of the perpetrators but could not prosecute them for lack of evidence that would not compromise intelligence sources or methods.
Adalah, a rights advocacy group for Arab Israelis, called the ban of the Islamic Movement chapter “an aggressive, draconian measure” to suppress a legal political movement. The order, signed without hearing or trial, was a “violation and crackdown” on the movement’s right to freedom of association and harms the country’s 1.65 million minority Arabs as a whole, said a statement from the organization.
After emerging from police questioning Tuesday, Salah told reporters the decision was “unacceptable and unjust.” Denouncing steps against the movement as “incitement,” he vowed to continue leading its causes.
“Without hesitation, I say we will sacrifice our lives for Al Aqsa,” the cleric said.
Israeli officials dismissed claims that the timing was linked to the Paris attacks and said the Cabinet decision had been kept under wraps for some time to complete the legal groundwork and the planned raid.
In recent weeks, Netanyahu has openly mulled measures against the hard-line chapter of the movement, which also has a second, moderate branch that was not subject to any restrictions.
The Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, an umbrella group coordinating Arab Israeli organizations, called a general strike for Thursday to protest the decision.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.