“Jerusalem is in danger”

Israeli authorities have attempted to silence Sheikh Raed Salah (center) through physical violence, movement restrictions and jail time. (Meged Gozani/Activestills.org)

Once again, Israel resorts to show trials. Sheikh Raed Salah, a prominent political and religious leader of the Palestinian minority, was sentenced on 13 January by an Israeli court to nine months of imprisonment. This is his second conviction in recent years. This time the allegation was that he assaulted a policeman and obstructed police work during a demonstration at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

The legal jargon notwithstanding, the persecution of Salah is part and parcel of two processes already underway — the crackdown on Arab leaders and political activists inside Israel and the Israeli campaign for creating facts on the ground in Jerusalem to entrench the illegal occupation.

Indeed, in recent years Israel has been intensifying its Judaization of Jerusalem by building new Jewish neighborhoods, evicting Arab families from their homes, house demolitions, refusing to grant building permits to Palestinian Jerusalemites to force them to leave, stripping them of their residence status under dubious excuses, isolating Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, and restricting the numbers and ages of Palestinians allowed to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque.

The attempt to change the geography and demography of Jerusalem has been a relentless Israeli project since the occupation of the city in 1967 and its subsequent de jure annexation. While this “legal” annexation has been rejected by the international community as a violation of international law, action has been limited to verbal protests and condemnation.

This project shows that Israel is making genuine efforts to undermine peace prospects by complicating the core issues. By unilaterally precluding certain options and transforming Palestinian legitimate aspirations into unrealistic fantasies these policies render any negotiations futile and add to the absurdity of the defunct “peace process.” The gravity of these policies is only magnified when one takes into account the expansive Israeli territorial understanding of “Jerusalem.”

The connection between the sheikh and the city is well-known. Salah, who has been prevented by Israeli orders from entering Jerusalem in recent months and has been prevented by other orders from leaving the country, has actively challenged these Israeli policies. When Israel restricted West Bankers from visiting al-Aqsa, Salah brought thousands of Palestinian citizens to pray in the mosque and visit Jerusalem. When Israel performed excavations in the al-Aqsa surroundings, Salah and his followers were the first to protest. When Israeli extremists announced their plans for the destruction of al-Aqsa mosque, Salah held rallies to raise awareness. When Israel tried to separate the Palestinian citizens from their brethren in the occupied territories, Salah and his movement organized aid to the latter. In short, Salah turned al-Aqsa into a rallying cry to defend the Arab and Islamic identity of Jerusalem and Palestine — an identity that Israel is denying and trying to erase.

Salah has also a vision for the empowerment of the Palestinian citizens, calling them the “self-sufficient society.” Salah, who was the mayor of one of the largest Arab communities inside Israel, reached the conclusion that there is a need to build civil society institutions to proffer the social services that the state has failed to provide. This need arises given the collective, systematic and long-standing discrimination against the Palestinian minority.

Given this backdrop, and given Salah’s vocal opposition to the Israeli practices in the occupied territories, it is no wonder that Israel is trying to criminalize his political activity, silence him, restrict his movement and deter his community. The transformation of ideological struggles into legal proceedings in court rooms is an old trick. It is an attempt to avoid political contestation and public dialogue on Israeli taboos. It is an attempt to stigmatize the opponents of the regime as outlaws.

It is hard to conceal the political nature of Salah’s trial, however. Salah, the head of the extra-parliamentary Islamic movement, has been identified by the security apparatus as a threat to the ideology of the state and was the target of several physical assaults by policemen, and was even shot in October 2000. Some of his movement’s nongovernmental organizations were closed by military orders and their newspaper was subject to temporary closure orders. And he has been repeatedly demonized in the Israeli media for more than a decade.

Thus, it is hard to believe that in the Israeli judicial system, which disproportionately convicts more Arabs than Jews, an average judge would look impartially at this pious, yet politically active, Muslim. Indeed, the judge could not help himself but express in the ruling his dislike of Salah’s facial expressions during the trial. Salah, then, was supposed to respect the mockery of justice masquerading as law.

This is by no means the only irony at work. Facing a group of “witnesses” from the police force, Salah’s testimony had no chance. While Salah is going to prison, Israeli policemen who killed 13 Arab demonstrators in October 2000 remain at large. In show trials like these, in which the legal outcome is predictable, the legal system becomes no more than a tool at the hands of the establishment to advance its ideological goals.

Israel hopes that its silencing of a prominent voice of protest will advance its goals towards the colonization of Palestine in general and the Judaization of Jerusalem in particular. However, the intensification of oppression invites an intensification of protest. Thus, Israel’s moves will bring peace neither inside nor outside its 1967 borders.

As the Israeli crackdown on Palestinian activists increases, it becomes necessary for all those who care about freedom, equality and justice to voice their protest as well. Indeed, as Salah would say, “Jerusalem is in danger.”

Nimer Sultany is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School. He is the editor of Citizens Without Citizenship, Israel and the Palestinian Minority (2003), and Israel and the Palestinian Minority (2004).