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Why was Sheikh Raad Salah on the Mavi Marmara?

Daniella Cheslow
June 14, 2010
A Palestinian youth waves a Turkish flag while another protester (R) holds a picture of Arab Israeli Islamist leader Sheikh Raed Salah, Gaza City, May 31, 2010.(Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)
A Palestinian youth waves a Turkish flag while another protester (R) holds a picture of Arab Israeli Islamist leader Sheikh Raed Salah, Gaza City, May 31, 2010.(Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

Last Monday, I stood amid olive trees overlooking the Arab-Israeli town of Sakhnin, where architect Riyad Dwairy urged me and 20 other Ben-Gurion University students to squint at a little white dot on the city’s right edge. “There’s the environmental building,” he said.

Dwairy, who worked on Sakhnin’s world-renowned green building, gave a remote tour because the students, who had come from Beer Sheva as part of a course on environmentalism in Israel’s Arab society, weren’t allowed to go into his northern hometown of 27,000 on the day the Israeli navy took over the Mavi Marmara. Among the five Palestinian citizens of Israel on board the ship was Sheikh Raad Salah, leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, who was rumored to be dead or injured. The university instructed us to stay out of any Arab city for fear of violent riots.

The students took the relocation to a nearby pine forest gamely, offering their own suggestions for green organizations in Haifa and asking questions from their seats on the dirt. Dwairy brought a poster of his building, which helped them see the electricity-free cooling towers and traditional stone exterior. Another activist, Laithi Ghnaim, outlined his hopes of starting an Arab organic farming cooperative in the fields south of Sakhnin. But the virtual tour underscored the fragile relationship between the country’s Jewish citizens and the 20 percent Arab minority, which has only become more volatile as Israeli public opinion has moved rightward and Palestinian citizens of Israel identify with their brethren in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Sheikh Raad Salah may well be a prime mover in the radicalization of Israeli Arabs. Born in 1958 to a police officer in the northern town of Umm el Fahem, he studied Islamic thought in the West Bank city of Nablus before becoming his hometown’s mayor in 1990. He has eight children. His modest apartment, reachable by one-lane asphalt lanes lined with passion fruit and grape vines, is symbolic of the humility that Muslims in Israel say they love about him. Salah is known as a humble, honest, and charismatic man who keeps his word and puts the poor first.

When he boarded the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara in a white headcap and grey robe, Salah told Al Jazeera, “We have campaigners coming from Kuwait, Jordan and Mauritania, Yemen and Algeria, and that is a message we send to the leaders: How beautiful would it be if you reconciled with the stance of your people in their support of the cause of the Palestinians.”

The Jerusalem Post quoted an unnamed police source who said Salah tried to provide cover for a gunman shooting at commandos during the fighting, but a police spokesman told me that “there is not substantial evidence to press charges.” Outside the court hearing to end his arrest, Salah told reporters in Ashkelon that “IDF soldiers tried to kill me. They shot towards someone else they thought was me.”

Escorted unscathed off the Marmara, Salah was detained for three days and then sentenced to five days of house arrest and a month and a half without travel abroad. He enjoyed a hero’s welcome upon his return to Umm el Fahem. His home town is the commercial and urban center of the triangle of Arab towns between Tel Aviv and Haifa that abut the green line separating Israel from the West Bank. Umm el Fahem’s long main street is lined with furniture stores, shopping malls, and coffee shops. Steep side roads lead to older neighborhoods, where brightly colored houses are festooned with flowers. Some yards have olive trees; others, chickens or horses.

A week after the Marmara debacle, Salah’s apartment’s balcony was draped with a broad banner picturing the sheikh opposite Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The railing one story up was strung with jeans air-drying in the summer sun. Salah had a constant stream of visitors; his nephew said around 2,000 a day.

Salah declined to comment. But Southern Branch Islamic Movement member Sheikh Kamel Rayan—who worked with Salah for 20 years in the Al-Aqsa charity foundation, traveled with him to Libya in April at the invitation of Muammar Qaddafi, and served as mayor of the tiny village of Kafr Bara in the 1990s when Salah headed Umm el Fahem’s city hall—told me Salah’s patience was running out.

“We have suffered discrimination and oppression for 60 years,” Rayan told me. “Our land is taken nearly every day. Our cities have no sanitation plans.” He said Salah wouldn’t settle for what their parents had. “All of Salah’s generation—they are painted as extreme because they’re against land confiscations and inequality.”

According to Rayan, Arabs felt much more welcome when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister, because “coexistence was his language.” But today, “the sense of Arabs in Israel is a sense of a chase.”

In the 2009 elections, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman campaigned for requiring Israel’s Arabs to swear a loyalty oath to the state. He has proposed that Umm el Fahem, along with other major Arab towns in Israel, be annexed to a future Palestinian state in exchange for Jewish settlements remaining in Israeli hands. His party won the third highest number of seats, and Lieberman serves as foreign minister.

Salah’s ideas have not endeared him to Israel’s 80 percent Jewish majority. In a 2006 Christian Science Monitor interview, Salah denied a Jewish connection to Jerusalem and predicted the implosion of the Jewish state within 20 years. In 2003, he was arrested in Israel on suspicion of funneling millions of dollars to Hamas operatives in Jenin and served two years in jail on charges he called a “mockery.” Four years later Salah was charged with assaulting a police officer during a riot in Jerusalem’s Old City. He was sentenced to nine months in jail for that incident but in a separate affair was acquitted last month in a 2007 case of rioting in East Jerusalem.

Dan Rabinowitz, a lecturer in anthropology at Tel Aviv University and the co-author of a book about the new generation of Arab-Israelis, said that 20 years ago, Arab citizens of Israel would probably not have boarded the Marmara. He told me that the present generation is “much more alienated.”

“The current government reflects Lieberman’s statements and actions and makes the alienation much deeper,” he said. “One result is that Palestinian citizens of Israel are inclined to turn to the international arena for aid, assistance, and support.”

The citizens who boarded the Marmara were among Israel’s most illustrious Arab leaders, including Mohammad Zeidan, the head of the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, which coordinates the Arab political parties and non-government organizations in Israel; Balad party Knesset Member Hanin Zoabi; Sheikh Hammad Abu Daabes, who heads the Islamic Movement’s Southern Branch; and Free Gaza delegation leader Lubna Masarwa. After the ship docked in Ashdod, Zoabi was released on Knesset immunity while the other four were detained. A week after the Marmara debacle, the Knesset’s eight-member House committee recommended stripping Zoabi of her privileges as a legislator, including the right to travel, use of a diplomatic passport, and—should she be sued—Knesset funding of court fees.

Likud Knesset Member Danny Danon proposed a law to allow the Knesset to expel a member by an 80-member majority in the 120-seat house. He told me that the climate has indeed gotten hotter, and with reason. “Some Arab Knesset members are inciting and creating provocations,” he said by phone. “These were terrorists, al Qaeda activists who came to fight,” he added. “They fought and stabbed and shot at the IDF. It’s unacceptable to have MKs on the other side.”

But in Umm el Fahem, locals supported Sheikh Salah nearly unconditionally.

“The sheikh didn’t go to Gaza to be a hero,” said furniture trader Said Muhajna, 45. “His conscience sent him.”

Muhajna, in a black collared polo shirt and jeans, said in Hebrew that he has worked for years buying and selling in nearby Jewish cities without a hitch. Yet he often thinks about the plight of the 1.5 million Gazans.

“They’re Muslims like me,” Muhajna said. “Even if they were Jews I’d think of them. They’re people, they want to eat and sleep.”

Eighteen-year-old Sultan Muhajna, who is not related to Said Muhajna, protested in Umm el Fahem’s main street when he heard the sheikh might be dead or injured. The soft-spoken high-school senior hopes to be a pastry chef like his father.

“Sheikh Raad—he’s a good, religious man,” he said. “He solves problems in Umm el Fahem, he negotiates between families when someone is murdered. If Sheikh Raad had died, there would have been a war.”

Up the steep road from Sultan’s home is the two-story Umm el Fahem Art Gallery, founded in 1996 as the first Arab art museum in Israel. Institution secretary Kamle Agbaria said the flotilla raid upended the gallery’s schedule. In the last week, nearly 20 visiting groups have canceled, and a fundraising evening in Tel Aviv for the gallery’s new building was called off.

Agbaria said the gallery runs co-ed dance and painting classes, and its only nod to the Islamic movement’s traditional mores is by prohibiting work showing nudes. Salah helped open the gallery, and his brother (the late Assem Abu Shaqra) exhibited paintings there, she said.

Agbaria’s oldest son was offered a scholarship to study law in Jordan, but he turned it down to study in the Tel Aviv suburb of Hod Hasharon. Like Zoabi, Agbaria is a member of the secular Arab Balad party. She said she wouldn’t want to participate in a future flotilla, but she supported Arab-Israelis’ right to do it.

Umm el Fahem a week after the Marmara raid was quiet. On the day the ship was boarded, however, masked youths burned tires and threw stones at the city’s entrance.

Yet 40 miles north, Sakhnin remained calm. Before we had relocated to the forest, engineer Dweri had urged us to come to Sakhnin. My professor demurred because of school regulations. But after the trip, as I drove toward Jerusalem with my professor, he said he was sorry we had cut our tour short and caused our students to miss seeing Sakhnin for themselves.

Two months earlier, we had visited the Bedouin city of Rahat without incident. A month later, the mayor of the Bedouin township of Hurra spoke to our class about his desire to create a desert sustainability center. In many ways, environmentalism has served as a neutral meeting point between Arab activists and the Ben-Gurion students, who include a handful of Bedouins as well as Israeli kibbutzniks and even some settlers. Ideally, environmentalism can unite dreamers and innovators of all backgrounds who want to build a cleaner country.

However, as the Marmara incident showed, that bridge is flimsy. In times of conflict, the idealism of the green movement does not penetrate to the heart of the deep suspicions and increasingly open misgivings that are pulling the Jewish-Arab relationship in Israel apart.

Daniella Cheslow is a master’s student in geography at Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Israel. She is based in Jerusalem.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.