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Israel bans Arab Islamic Movement for 'incitement' over al-Aqsa religious site

Israel has banned the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Israel accuses the movement of inciting violence over the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement of Israel provides educational, religious and cultural services to Arab Israelis, but unlike its mainstream branch does not participate in elections so as to not legitimize Israel and does not recognize the Oslo peace accords. The two branches split in the 1990s.

The Israeli government accuses the Northern Branch of incitement over the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third most holy site in Islam and most holy site for Jews, who call it the Temple Mount.

The Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement is unaffected by the ban.

Clashes over the religious site have erupted over the years, with the most recent spate of violence starting in September. The Islamic Movement and some Palestinians accuse Israel of seeking to take control of the compound and change the status quo.

By October a dead peace process and more than half century of Israeli occupation added fuel to the al-Aqsa tension as near daily knife, gun and car-ramming attacks targeted Israelis.

In all, 14 Israelis have been killed since early October and Israeli security forces have killed more than 80 Palestinians, half accused by Israel of attacking Jews.

Struggling to deal with the violence and protests, Israeli stepped up security and implemented a harsh crackdown on Palestinians.

Distrust over status quo

In announcing the ban on Tuesday, the Israeli government said, "the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement has carried out a campaign of incitement to violence for years based on the lie that 'The Al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger' and the false accusation that Israel wants to harm the mosque and violate the status quo."

Jews may visit but are prohibited from praying at the Temple Mount, a policy that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the government will not change.

Still, there has been a sharp increase in visits to the holy site over the years by Jewish activists, who would like to open it to Jewish prayer. By their account, at least 10,000 Jewish visitors are expected to visit this year alone, up from roughly 300 people a decade ago.

Israel Jerusalem Tempelberg

Known to Muslims as Al-Aqsa and to Jews as Temple Mount, claims to the holy site have heightened tensions between the two groups

In response, the Islamic Movement has funded so-called female Murabitat and male Murabitun groups to watch over Jewish visitors and ensure they do not pray. Those groups were banned from al-Aqsa in September, sparking protests.

Compounding the distrust are statements by Israeli officials contradicting Netanyahu's avowed intent to preserve the status quo.

In recent weeks Israel's deputy foreign minister, deputy defense minister, a Likud cabinet minister, and the government's new spokesperson, among others, have all espoused the view Israel should take over the Temple Mount and open it to Jewish prayer.

Raids on Northern Branch

Israeli security forces on Tuesday raided offices of the movement and 17 affiliated organizations. Police seized money, documents, and computers and authorities froze the movement's bank accounts.

"Any person who belongs to this organization or who provides services to it or who acts within its framework is henceforth committing a criminal offense punishable by a prison sentence," the Israeli government said in a statement.

The government claimed the Islamic Movement has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the militant group Hamas and wants to destroy Israel.

Arab Israeli and Palestinian groups condemn

Raed Salah, the head of the organization, vowed to continue despite the ban.

"All these measures taken by the Israeli establishment are unjust and unacceptable," Salah said in a statement. "I am proud to remain the president of the Islamic Movement... (and) am seeking through all legitimate means, both domestic and internationally, to raise (the issue of) this blatant injustice."

Salah, who has been in and out of Israeli prisons, is suppose to start a 11-month jail term later this month pending an appeal for other incitement charges related to a 2007 sermon.

Mohammed Barakeh, the head of an umbrella group of Arab Israeli political parties and community leaders, said in an interview with Israeli Army Radio that the ban was "an unjustified draconian step that is meant to incriminate the entire Arab population."

Arab Israelis make up about 20 percent of Israel's population. Israel Arabs complain of discrimination, disenfranchisement and harassment.

In the statement, the Israeli government said the decision to ban the Islamic Movement was not directed at law abiding Arabs and Muslims.

cw/kms (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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