Branch of Islamic Movement in Israel Outlawed Amid Tensions

TEL AVIV — Israel outlawed a branch of an Islamic organization Tuesday, accusing it of leading a "campaign of incitement" over a religious site at the heart of recent tensions in Jerusalem.

The country's security Cabinet declared the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel an illegal organization, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.

It accused the group of encouraging Palestinian fears that Israel is trying to limit access for Muslims to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, which is also known as the Temple Mount and has deep religious significance to both Muslims and Jews.

Under an agreement with Islamic religious authorities, Jews can tour the complex but not pray at the site. Israel's ban appeared to refer to rumors circulating the city that security forces have set aside certain times a day for Jews to pray there.

Those concerns are at the heart of a spate of stabbings and clashes in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Since October 1, at least 14 Israelis have been killed in stabbings, shootings and other attacks, and at least 75 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israeli forces, including 45 attackers or would-be attackers.

Image: File photo of Sheik Raed Salah and other at pro-Palestinian demonstration in Sakhnin
Sheik Raed Salah (third right), leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel's northern branch, attends a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Sakhnin, Israel, in October. BAZ RATNER / Reuters File

Netanyahu's statement said the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel hired paid activists to "initiate provocations" at the site and described the group as a "separatist-racist organization" whose goal was "the destruction of the State of Israel."

"This activity has led to a significant increase in tension on the Temple Mount," the prime minister's statement said. "A significant portion of recent terrorist attacks have been committed against the background of this incitement and propaganda."

The group of the movement's northern branch, Sheik Raed Salah, was jailed for 11 months in October for evoking anti-Semitic imagery during a sermon in 2007, according to Reuters. He is due to start his term later this month.

The decision to outlaw the group was criticized by Israeli lawmaker Ayman Odeh, who heads the Joint List coalition of Arab-Israeli-dominated political parties.

"Netanyahu is continuing in his attempts to exacerbate the situation on the ground and cause additional escalation," he told NBC News. He described northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel as a "political movement whose activities are all conducted under the right to free speech."

Odeh described the move as "anti-democratic persecution that is part of the de-legitimization campaign waged by Netanyahu's government against the country's country's Arab citizens."

In response to the decision to outlaw the faction, which was signed off by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, court orders were issued to close 17 non-profit organizations affiliated to the movement, a police spokesman told NBC News.

Police have searched 13 of these institutions, confiscating documents and money, the spokesman added.

NBC News reached out to the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel for comment but there was no immediate response.