JERUSALEM (Reuters) - In outlawing its most strident Islamist group, Israel risks angering its largely quiescent Arab citizens as it confronts a wave of Palestinian violence powered by religious and political tensions.
The relative popularity of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, banned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet on Tuesday, has troubled Israel as it tries to curb street attacks raging for the past seven weeks.
Leaders of the Israeli Arab minority declared a commercial strike for Thursday in protest at the ban and accused Netanyahu of scapegoating their community rather than addressing the Palestinians’ grievances and statehood demands.
“Netanyahu wants to rebrand the conflict as a religious conflict,” Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List faction in the Israeli parliament, said in a speech. “This is nothing more than anti-democratic, political persecution.”
Another Israeli Arab lawmaker, Haneen Zoabi, suggested the Netanyahu was capitalizing on international security jitters after Islamist militants killed 129 people in Paris on Friday - charges the government denied.
Netanyahu contends that the Islamic Movement’s northern section, which unlike its southern branch refuses to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, has encouraged assaults on Israelis. Its leader has said it will take legal action against the ban.
Since the start of last month, 14 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians. At least 78 Palestinians, 47 of them assailants according to police, have been killed by security forces at scenes of the assaults and many others in protests in the occupied West Bank and near the Gaza border.
The violence has been fueled by Palestinian allegations - denied by Israel - of a government plot to erode Muslim control of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque complex, which Jews revere as vestige of their biblical temples.
Netanyahu has accused the northern section of inciting the violence with its “Al Aqsa is in danger” rallying cry. The ban sits well with Netanyahu’s far-right partners in a coalition that governs with a one-seat parliamentary majority.
Yet Israel’s own Shin Bet security service is worried that the ban could backfire, a political source told Reuters.
Given Israeli surveillance and prosecution of citizens suspected of abetting the Palestinian attacks, one expert on Israeli Arab opinion also cast doubt on the need for the crackdown.
“Why outlaw the group when individual perpetrators can always be nabbed?” said Haifa University sociology professor Sammy Smooha, who conducts regular surveys of Israeli Arabs.
He said that while 9 percent of his respondents cited the northern Islamic Movement as the group they most identified with, 42.2 percent expressed more generalized support for its ideas and charitable work in an often neglected community.
“This ban will cause friction and resistance,” Smooha said.
Arab citizens make up 20 percent of Israel’s population of eight million. Sympathy for Palestinian brethren living under Israeli occupation has traditionally been strong, and Israeli Arabs dislike the Jewish-nationalist policies championed by Netanyahu.
But Netanyahu - who was accused of racism when he complained on election day last March that his left-wing opponents were getting Arabs to vote “in droves” - is under public pressure to take strong action to stem the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence since the 2014 Gaza war.
“A significant number of the recent attacks were committed against the backdrop of (the Islamic Movement’s) incitement and propaganda,” a statement issued by Netanyahu’s office said.
Whereas Israeli authorities have grudgingly shrugged off the group’s rhetoric in the past, they are now less forgiving of anything that might encourage the kind of knife, gun and car-ramming attacks seen in recent weeks.
“Nowadays words have more meaning than ever,” said security cabinet minister Zev Elkin, accusing the northern branch of “creating an atmosphere of hatred of Israel”.
“When you see what happened in Paris, and what is happening over here, you realize that a democracy that cannot defend itself will find it much harder to prevail,” he told Army Radio.
Public Minister Gilad Erdan rejected Zoabi’s suggestion that the government was using the Paris bloodbath to crack down.
Erdan said proscribing the northern Islamic Movement was a decision reached after years of deliberation that peaked in recent weeks as final evidence was put together.
Speaking to Reuters, he played down the prospect of a backlash from Israeli Arabs, saying the government planned to increase investment in their communities and that some charities linked to the northern Islamic Movement might be spared closure.
“We want to show Israel’s Arab citizens, most of whom are law-abiding citizens, that we want to strengthen ties,” he said.
Erdan has called for similar curbs on far-right Jewish groups for anti-Arab hate speech. “We don’t distinguish between Jewish terrorism and Arab terrorism, but the truth needs to be told: there is Jewish terrorism but in terms of size and numbers it is not at the same extent,” he said.
Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and David Stamp