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Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region
6. The Mufti’s Successor: Sheikh Raed Salah

6. The Mufti’s Successor: Sheikh Raed Salah

Sheikh Raed Salah as Successor of the Mufti
Haj Amin al-Husseini

If in the first three decades after the Six-Day War it was Jordan and the Palestinians who set the tone on the Temple Mount,(1) each making use of the “Al-Aksa is in danger” slogan to build up their status as leaders in the struggle to protect and liberate Jerusalem, beginning in the mid-1990s Sheikh Raed Salah appropriated this issue as his own.

Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the northern branch of the Israeli Islamic Movement. He became the successor of Haj Amin al-Husseini, refurbished the "Al-Aksa is in danger" libel, incited violence, and promised to redeem Al-Aksa "in fire and blood." (Tara Todras-Whitehill, Associated Press)

Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the northern branch of the Israeli Islamic Movement. He became the successor of Haj Amin al-Husseini, refurbished the “Al-Aksa is in danger” libel, incited violence, and promised to redeem Al-Aksa “in fire and blood.” (Tara Todras-Whitehill, Associated Press)

It was Salah and his Israeli Islamic Movement, and particularly its northern branch, who during 1996-1998 brought about the very substantial change in the status quo that had prevailed on the Temple Mount since 1967, and indeed since the days of the mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who renovated the mosques in the 1920s and 1930s. Salah and his movement prepared prayer rugs for the extensive underground space, known as Solomon’s Stables, in the southeastern corner of the mount, and for the space under the Al-Aksa Mosque (or “ancient Al-Aksa”). They turned these into two additional mosques. One of them, the new mosque in Solomon’s Stables, extends for 4,500 meters and is actually one of the largest mosques ever built in Israel.

Salah also launched an effort to clean out the cisterns on the Temple Mount and almost succeeded to implement a plan to import water from the holy Well of Zamzam in Mecca, which would have enhanced the place’s status even more(2) as well as his own. Success in this would have bestowed him with the status of the saki (who sprinkles the pilgrims with holy water) and the sadan (beadle), roles that are traditionally reserved for descendants of the Prophet Muhammad at the pilgrimage site in Mecca.

Without a doubt, Salah is the disciple par excellence of Husseini, a pupil who outdoes his teacher: Salah has ramped up the “Al-Aksa is in danger” libel to a pitch that his forerunners and competitors have not reached. He has done so both by using crude, violent language to convey radical messages against the State of Israel, the Jews, and the Zionist movement, and through huge annual gatherings and worldwide fundraising campaigns for his movement’s Al-Aksa Association for Defense of the Holy Places.(3) Salah, who has been closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and influenced by its ideology, has also been in contact with Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Hamas leader Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, and he led delegations of his movement to meet with Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.(4)

In September 1996 and in September 1997 in Umm al-Fahm, Salah’s power base,(5) the Islamic Movement held its first two mass rallies under the “Al-Aksa is in danger” slogan. The second rally was held in the wake of what came to be known as the Western Wall Tunnel riots, a bloody event that the Palestinians instigated over the opening of a northern exit gate for the Western Wall Tunnel (see Chapter 9). The gate provided visitors and tourists in the tunnel with access to the Via Dolorosa and the Muslim markets of the Old City, instead of having to retrace their steps within the narrow tunnel and return to the Western Wall plaza. Yet, according to accusations leveled by the Palestinian Authority and the Islamic Movement, behind this measure lurked an Israeli plan to bring down the Temple Mount mosques. In the ensuing riots fifteen IDF soldiers and forty Palestinians were killed, and hundreds of others injured. It was under the impetus of these riots that the work on Solomon’s Stables and, indeed, the process of turning them into a mosque was greatly speeded up and completed.

In the first two “Al-Aksa is in danger” rallies, a model of the Dome of the Rock could be seen behind the speaker’s podium. Its dome was painted red, a symbol of its travails at the hands of the Jews. Already evident in these rallies was the tack taken ever since by the Islamic Movement and its leader Raed Salah. The chairman of the Higher Monitoring Committee of the Israeli Arab sector, Ibrahim Nimr Hussein, declared that “in Jerusalem there is no vestige of Judaism. It is Muslim and it is our duty to defend it with all our might.” The mufti of Jerusalem at that time, Sheikh Akrama Sabri, also proclaimed that “the Muslims will defend Jerusalem with their lives.”(6)

Four years later came the outbreak of the Al-Aksa Intifada, which took a toll, for Jews and Arabs, of thousands dead and over ten thousand injured. The Palestinians claim the intifada broke out because of the visit by Ariel Sharon, then leader of the Likud opposition, to the Temple Mount on September 28, 2000. In line with the Palestinians’ demand, the visit was conducted outside of the mosque and was in fact coordinated with the Palestinian Authority. That did not, however, prevent the incitement and bloodshed that came in its wake.(7) Sharon was described as a murderer who was defiling the Muslim holy places.(8) Again the Muslims were called on to defend Al-Aksa and Jerusalem, and this time too the justification was that Israel aimed to destroy the mosques and build the Third Temple in their place. Later Amad al-Paluji, who was a minister in the Palestinian government, said that two months before Sharon’s visit to the mount, in the immediate aftermath of the failed Israeli-Palestinian talks at Camp David, the intifada was already being planned. Israeli intelligence also found evidence of this,(9) though at the time it was kept under wraps.

The intifada, which lasted several years, began at the end of September 2000. Its first days saw demonstrations and violent riots by Arab citizens of Israel. These began with mass rallies expressing Israeli Arabs’ solidarity with Palestinians in the territories. Roads were blocked and demonstrators began clashing with police contingents. Ultimately twelve Israeli Arabs, one Palestinian who was not an Israeli citizen, and one Israeli Jew were killed in the October riots in northern Israel.

Complying with a demand by the Israeli Arab leadership, the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak set up a state commission of inquiry chaired by Judge Theodore Or. The commission harshly criticized government ministers, police officials, and leaders of the Israeli Arab sector and particularly Raed Salah and members of his movement.

The members of the commission(10) – Judges Theodore Or and Hashem Khatib, and Prof. Shimon Shamir – singled out the Islamic Movement’s involvement with the issue of the Temple Mount. They noted that “in the Islamic Movement’s activity [with regard to the mount], more than in other areas, its strategy emerged clearly: escalating conflict, activism in the field, and agitating the public. The movement gave Al-Aksa priority as a sensitive focal point for unifying the Muslims in Israel, and as a bridge to the Palestinian society in the territories and to the Islamic world as a whole.”(11)

The Or Commission that investigated the Israeli Arab riots in October 2000 found that “it is not credible that Sheikh Salah actually believed that the Israeli government intended to destroy the mosques and build the Temple in their place, as he claimed.”

The commission stated that

even though there is no doubt about the profound religious sentiments of Sheikh Raed Salah and his genuine concern about Muslim control of Al-Aksa…it is not credible that Sheikh Salah actually believed that the Israeli government intended to destroy the mosques and build the Temple in their place, as he claimed. There is no escaping the conclusion that his assertions on this matter were aimed at amassing political capital – at mobilizing supporters and escalating conflict. His calls to liberate Al-Aksa at the price of blood, especially as voiced in the massive and impassioned rallies that he organized, were responsible for further aggravating the tense atmosphere in the Arab sector before the events of October (emphasis added).(12)

Indeed, an examination of the testimonies, speeches, and declarations – the actions and the atmosphere that Salah generated – makes clear how the judges, one of them an Israeli Arab from Nazareth, arrived at these conclusions.

Already in the violent al-Ruha events of 1998,(13) Salah had incited behavior of the sort that erupted in October 2000. Salah already saw those events as an “encouraging attempt,” and he egged on the demonstrators with incendiary rhetoric. In an interview in 1999, Salah called on the Arab public to cease being reactive and instead turn proactive and confrontational.(14) Soon after, he called on the residents to physically block the setting up of army camps on parts of the al-Ruha lands (located in the mostly Arab-populated Wadi Ara area). He continued to threaten violence at the Land Day gathering in March 2000.

The Or Commission notes that Salah’s call to the public to protect Al-Aksa invoked, among other things, the attitudes of Jewish extremist groups: “rabbis and politicians who broached various plans for building a synagogue on the mount. A number of extremist groups have engaged in demonstrative and symbolic acts of fulfilling the vision of the rebuilt Temple, and in the context of political negotiations different plans have been raised that aimed to strengthen the status of the Jews on the mount.” The commission went on to assert, however, that

“Raed Salah went much further, since he acted to stir up the Arab public against a supposed intention of the Israeli government to replace the Al-Aksa mosques(15) with a Jewish Temple – an intention that had no connection whatsoever to reality” (emphasis added).(16)

How did Salah do this?

Here, too, it is worth relying on the commission’s report, which examined written materials and interrogated numerous witnesses including Raed Salah himself. Salah called to sacrifice human lives for the sake of protecting Al-Aksa. He also endorsed the updated Muslim tenet that the Al-Aksa Mosque also includes the Western Wall. As far as Salah is concerned, even the existence of the police station on the Temple Mount compound,(17) that is, the presence of Israeli policing at the site, puts Al-Aksa in danger.(18)

At the 1999 “Al-Aksa is in danger” rally, a senior figure in Salah’s movement said that “the oil lamp of Al-Aksa could be extinguished, but we are prepared to light Al-Aksa with blood, because he who lights it with his blood will not be extinguished.”(19) The messages at the annual gathering in 2000 were no different. At that event Sheikh Salah characterized any assertion of any Jewish right whatsoever to the Temple Mount as a declaration of religious war on all Muslims; as he put it:

We will say openly to the Jewish society, you do not have a right even to one stone of the blessed Al-Aksa Mosque. You do not have a right even to one tiny particle of the blessed Al-Aksa Mosque. Therefore we will say openly, the western wall of blessed Al-Aksa is part of blessed Al-Aksa. It can never be a small Western Wall. It can never be a large Western Wall….We will say openly to the political and religious leadership in Israel: the demand to keep blessed Al-Aksa under Israeli sovereignty is also a declaration of war on the Islamic world (emphasis added).(20)

During the rally Sheikh Salah led chants of “In spirit, in blood, we will redeem you Al-Aksa.”(21) Similar statements were made by a senior activist in the Islamic Movement’s northern branch, who attributed to then-prime minister Barak an intention to destroy the Al-Aksa Mosque so as to build the Temple on its ruins. He threatened that tears would not be shed for Al-Aksa because blood would flow for it. He also likened Barak, with his alleged aim of toppling Al-Aksa and erecting the Temple in its stead, to Abraha al-Ashram, the Ethiopian military leader who, according to Muslim tradition based on the Elephant Sura (Sura 105) of the Koran, came to Mecca with the goal of destroying the Kaaba stone. Allah, however, sent a flock of birds after him who threw stones at him and his followers, breaking his neck. This activist said Barak should know that Allah could, in the present as well, dispatch a flock of birds of that kind; or, if not, the Muslims themselves would fulfill Allah’s decree. This same individual, publisher of the northern branch’s periodical, also made these assertions at greater length in an article there.(22) Salah himself, in an interview a few days earlier, made similar claims about the Barak-led government’s ostensible plans to build the Temple.(23)

Salah, an Israeli citizen, related to Israel as to an enemy state. About a month and a half before the October riots, the Islamic Movement’s Tsut al-Chak v’al-Huriya printed a poem by him on the destruction of a house of prayer, apparently at Sarafend on Habonim Beach (in northern Israel), by the Jews.(24) The poem casts the Jews as the enemy of Allah, destined for annihilation. While this enemy of Allah to which the poem refers – as the Or Commission also realized – is not explicitly identified with Israel, it is hard not to understand it that way, or at least to claim that the Arab readers of the poem would understand it differently.(25)

Two days after the Al-Aksa Intifada broke out, at the start of October 2000, the National Shura (Consultative) Council of the Islamic Movement published an announcement on the killing of the Palestinians a day earlier at the Al-Aksa plaza. This announcement, which Salah himself formulated, lauded the sacrifice of blood on Al-Aksa’s behalf.(26) In another announcement a month later, the Islamic Movement made clear that it regarded a further incident on the Temple Mount on October 29, 2000, in which four Palestinians were killed, as a “planned massacre” pure and simple. Salah had already offered his own angle on the bloodshed in an article on October 6, 2000. There he dubbed the bloody strife since the end of September as the “Al-Aksa Intifada,” and praised it as an uprising in which the Arabs of the land had made the Al-Aksa Mosque their common cause.

In February 2007, Salah gave a sermon that was even more extreme. The context of his statements was the ongoing rescue digs of the Israel Antiquities Authority outside the Temple Mount near the Mughrabi Gate access ramp, where an earthen ramp had collapsed due to natural causes (see Chapter 9). Speaking in the Wadi Joz neighborhood of Jerusalem, Salah reiterated that Israel was aiming to build the Temple in place of the Al-Aksa Mosque and added: “What audacity have they to build a house of prayer…when our blood is still on their clothes, on their doors, in their food and drink? Our blood passes from one terrorist general to another terrorist general.” Salah also repeated demented anti-Semitic claims he had made previously in the spirit of the blood libel of medieval Europe: “We are not a nation that is based on hate. It is not we who have ever allowed ourselves to eat bread soaked in the blood of children….Soon Islam will rule the entire Middle East in the form of a caliphate state [i.e., a religious Muslim state] that will uphold the honor of Jewish synagogues.”(27)

Over two years later, in November 2009, Salah again raised the idea of the caliphate and surmised that “not far is the day when Al-Quds will be a global Muslim capital of a global Islamic caliphate.”(28) In May 2010, Member of Knesset Masud Ganaim of the United Arab List-Taal faction, who is a member of the Islamic Movement’s southern branch, also pushed for the establishment of a great Islamic caliphate that would include Israel and said all means were legitimate when it came to defending Jerusalem and Al-Aksa.(29)

While Salah is the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, regarding the Temple Mount mosques, members of the southern branch are no less extreme, and they too have promoted the notions of fighting for Al-Aksa and of “Al-Aksa is in danger.” Prominent among them was Member of Knesset Abd al-Malik Dehamshe, chairman of the United Arab List in the fourteenth and fifteenth Knessets. Dehamshe, a lawyer by training, was among those issued warnings by the Or Commission and was found guilty of most of the charges against him; but because he was a Knesset member he was not penalized. The Or Commission noted in its report that “Dehamshe called again and again to be prepared to sacrifice body and soul for the defense of Al-Aksa,” and that “taken as a whole, his statements make clear that defending Al-Aksa does not only refer to defending it against whoever may harm it physically, but also against a change in political arrangements.” These statements were made against the background of the Camp David Conference in July 2000.(30)

In a radio interview as the conference convened, Dehamshe asserted: “As a Muslim and also as a public servant, I will not allow any harm to befall our holy of holies in this land. I think the time has come for us all to understand that this matter cannot continue in this way and we will defend it with all our might, including martyrdom.” Dehamshe made similar declarations in a visit to the Temple Mount that same month and added: “We will sacrifice our souls to defend the mosque. I myself am prepared to be the first martyr to defend the Temple Mount….I am prepared and pray to be the first martyr to sacrifice his body to defend the holy of holies of Islam in Jerusalem.”(31) Less than two months later, Dehamshe was again quoted as urging jihad by the Israeli Arab sector to prevent Israeli sovereignty over Al-Aksa.(32) Toward the end of July 2000, perhaps to underline that he meant what he said, he sent a letter to U.S. president Bill Clinton, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat in which he warned against infringing the sanctified status of Jerusalem. He emphasized that the Muslim and Arab masses would heed a call to die the death of the holy martyr for Al-Aksa’s sake:

If they impose it on us, and if it becomes necessary, our souls will serve as a penance, and we will be the sacrifices and the martyrs in defending our honor and in safeguarding our holy places, Al-Aksa most of all….We will not suppress the nation’s anger and we will not control the popular outrage….Souls are yearning to die a martyr’s death for the sake of defending Al-Aksa and blessed Jerusalem, and millions of members of the Muslim and the Arab nation will heed the call to die a death of sanctity and honor.(33)

These harsh statements were directed at the possibility that the Palestinian leadership would strike a compromise in the course of the negotiations on Jerusalem. The threat of violence indeed became a tool to achieve political goals.

A few years ago Salah crowned himself with the title “Sheikh Al-Aksa,” even further upgrading the masses’ total identification of him with the mosque. Any injury to him was now viewed as an injury to Al-Aksa, and during demonstrations in the Palestinian and Muslim street there were often cries of readiness to give one’s life on his behalf. Salah employed tactics aimed at a total segregation of the Muslim society in Israel from the state and its institutions, and over the years he set up Muslim institutions that could form the basis for a future autonomous framework; this, in turn, would be part of his dream of a global caliphate.(34) For him, “Al-Aksa is in danger” was both a tenet in itself and an instrument toward realizing his objectives. At the beginning of 2000, Salah expressed with great precision his view of Al-Aksa and his role as its protector:

The Al-Aksa Mosque is a Muslim, Arab, Palestinian property and no one else, whoever they may be, has any right to it; Jews especially have no right until the end of time. And whoever consents to Jews having a right to a stone there or to antiquities or to anything else, is a traitor. And it is our duty to say to that person: you are a traitor. It is treason against God, Muhammad, and the believers, against the Muslim nation, the Arab world, and the Palestinian people. It is treason against the first kibla(35) and against the Second Mosque and against the heavenward ascent of the Prophet Muhammad, and it is treason against the Al-Haram Mosque in Mecca and the Medina Mosque. It is treason against the babies of the martyrs, against Muhammad al-Dura(36) and others, and we say to whoever presumes to challenge these positions: you will not succeed. The Al-Aksa Mosque is ours alone, and not one of you in the Jewish population has any part in it. And we still think that there is no Palestinian and no Arab and no Muslim on the face of the earth, who has in his heart a smidgen of pride, who will permit himself to give up a part, a stone, a wall, a path, a memorial rug, a dome, or a structure of the blessed Al-Aksa, from inside or outside, whether under the ground, upon the earth, or above it.(37)