Israel charges firebrand Islamic cleric with incitement

Arab-Israeli Sheikh Raed Salah (centre), leader of the radical northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, arrives at the Israeli Rishon Lezion Justice court, near Tel Aviv, on Aug 15, 2017.
Arab-Israeli Sheikh Raed Salah (centre), leader of the radical northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, arrives at the Israeli Rishon Lezion Justice court, near Tel Aviv, on Aug 15, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - An Israeli court on Thursday (Aug 24) charged a firebrand Islamic cleric with incitement to terrorism in connection with deadly unrest at a Jerusalem holy site last month, the Justice Ministry said.

It said that Arab-Israeli Raed Salah was charged in Haifa Magistrates' Court on a total of six counts, also including support for a banned organisation.

His group, the radical northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, was outlawed in 2015 for incitement linked to the holy site, the Haram al-Sharif mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The statement alleged that he issued "expressions of praise, sympathy or encouragement for an act of terrorism" on various occasions.

His alleged statements were made against "a special security background" in the wake of a July 14 attack in which three Arab-Israelis from Salah's hometown of Umm al-Fahm killed two policemen after emerging from the holy compound in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

The attackers were themselves shot dead by other officers.

The Justice Ministry quoted the charge sheet as saying Salah's statements were made at the Umm al-Fahm funeral of the assailants and in two sermons he delivered at Friday Muslim prayers in the town in northern Israel.

It said that the funeral was attended by thousands, some of them masked and chanting pledges to the dead attackers to "continue in your path". It did not specify Salah's comments there.

Salah's lawyers and supporters say his sermons are always within the bounds of free speech and that he "stands against the murder of innocents". They have called the 58-year-old preacher's arrest political intimidation and say it was intended to silence dissent.

Israel responded to the July 14 attack by installing metal detectors and other security equipment at the entrance, but that triggered protests which left seven Palestinians dead.

As the unrest raged, a Palestinian broke into a home in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and stabbed four Israelis, killing three.

The crisis ended when Israel removed the security devices at the site, which includes the revered Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

Salah's arrest on Aug 15 followed his release from prison in January after serving a nine-month sentence on similar charges.

The holy site in the Old City is the third-holiest in Islam and the most sacred for Jews. It is the scene of regular confrontations between the two groups.