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Elie Rekhess
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At the end of 2005, the Arab minority in Israel numbered approximately 1,377,100, constituting 19.7 percent of the total Israeli population (the figures include the Arab residents of East Jerusalem, estimated at 244,000). Eighty-three percent of the Arab minority (1,140,600) were Muslim, whereas the rest were Christian (8.6 percent or 118,700) and Druze (8.4 percent or 115,200).

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War created a structural vacuum in the life of the Muslim community in Israel. Organized Islam virtually disappeared. Almost every member of the Muslim religious establishment of Mandatory Palestine fled. The Muslims in the newly established State of Israel were left without religious court judges, prayer leaders, and other functionaries necessary to sustain the religious life of the community. The Supreme Muslim Council ceased to exist, having been superseded by the Jordanian religious authorities.

Israel was faced with the challenging task of reestablishing the Muslim religious apparatus and applying the sharīʿah in the new Jewish state. Muslim religious affairs, including the administration of awqāf (sg., waq   f; religious endowments), devolved to the Israeli authorities, primarily to the Muslim Department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

The sharīʿah court system was gradually reconstructed, but it took years to restore the situation to normal, mainly because there were few people qualified to assume religious appointments. By necessity, underqualified men were occasionally engaged. In May 1961 the Knesset (parliament) ratified the Qādīs Law, which stipulated that the qādīs (judges) be selected by a committee with a Muslim majority, appointed by the president of Israel, and dispense justice in accordance with Israeli laws.

The Muslim religious courts in Israel were granted exclusive and extensive jurisdiction in matters of personal status and awqaf. The Knesset, however, restricted the jurisdiction of the sharīʿah courts in certain areas with the intention of thoroughly reforming the legal status of women.

As Aharon Layish has shown (“Muslim Religious Jurisdiction in Israel,” Asian and African Studies 2 [1966]: 50–79), Israeli legislation in matters of personal status proceeded along two different lines. With regard to marriage and divorce, the Knesset imposed several restrictions: it prohibited the marriage of girls under seventeen, outlawed polygamy, and forbade divorcing a woman against her will. The secular legislation did not supersede religious law in these matters, but it was enforced by penal sanctions.

The other line entailed the supercession of Muslim religious law; for example, the Knesset 's legislation regarding natural guardianship of the mother was alone binding. With the 1965 Succession Law, the exclusive jurisdiction of the sharīʿah courts in matters of succession and wills was abolished, and the power to deal with these matters was transferred to the state district courts.

After 1948, Muslim waq   f properties whose administrators or beneficiaries were absentees were entrusted to a special custodian. Consecrated Muslim sites and their secular appurtenances were administered by the Muslim Department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which served as an agent of the Custodian of Absentees ’ Property. The law was amended in 1965 to allow the release of waq   f khayrī property (established for a particular public good) to several Muslim trustee committees.

Since the late 1970s, the Muslim community in Israel has been undergoing a process of Islamic revivalism. The resurgence derives from a combination of local conditions particular to the Arab minority in Israel as well as more general causes.

Renewed contacts with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 war strengthened the religious component in Israeli Muslims ’ collective identity. It gave them renewed access to the holy places of Jerusalem and Hebron and exposed them to the activities of the Muslim High Council in Jerusalem, reconstituted after 1967. It was through the intervention of the council that in 1978 Israeli Arabs were permitted to perform the hajj; until then, holders of Israeli passports had been barred from doing so. The council also helped young Israeli Arabs study at Islamic colleges in the occupied territories.

The resurgence of Islam must also be seen against the background of the Arab sector 's socioeconomic crisis. The intensive process of modernization that the Arabs in Israel experienced weakened their conservative family value system and clan structure. This partial disintegration of old social frameworks created a void and a sense of confusion, causing more Arabs to turn to Islam for moral guidance.

Since the early 1970s, the Arab sector in Israel has become increasingly aware of and distressed by its socioeconomic situation relative to that of the Jews. The sizable gap between the Arab and Jewish populations in such fields as education, health services, housing, and industrialization has become increasingly acute. The gaps developed partly through governmental neglect and partly through the government 's inability to meet the growing needs occasioned by the Arabs ’ rapid population growth. The ultimate outcome was a deepening sense of Arab bitterness, frustration, alienation, and dissent.

As the discrepancies between Jews and Arabs widened and the secular Arab political bodies failed to improve matters, the Arab community became increasingly eager for some external force to step in and remedy the imbalance. As elsewhere in the Muslim world, Islamists filled the void, providing practical solutions to the deteriorating local conditions.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini 's rise to power in Iran led to the formation of the first clandestine group of Islamic militants in Israel. Set up within a year of the Iranian revolution, it called itself Usrat al-Jihād (the Jihad Family) and was organized as a paramilitary unit. The group 's objective was to wage jihād against Israel, undermine the basis of Jewish–Zionist existence, and cause the state to collapse from within. Usrat al-Jihād carried out a number of acts of sabotage, including arson; it also took action against secular or permissive trends among Israeli Muslims. However, soon after their first sabotage operations in 1981, all seventy members of the organization were arrested and sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to fifteen years. The arrest and trial dampened Muslim militancy in Israel.

In the mid-1980s the Islamic activist Shaykh ʿAbd Allāh Nimr Darwīh moved to center stage. A resident of Kufr Qasim, Darwīsh was a graduate of the Nablus sharīʿah college. In 1979 he joined Usrat al-Jihād; he was arrested and convicted in 1981 and released in 1983. When Darwīsh resumed his politico-religious career, he gave Islamic activism in Israel a new nonmilitant direction. Darwīsh focused on the community, trying to win the hearts of the local Muslims by means of religious education and community work. Islamic associations were soon founded in a number of Arab localities. The Islamic Movement, as it came to be known, succeeded in changing the face of Arab village society. Mosque attendance increased significantly; the number of mosques in Israel grew from 60 in 1967 to 80 in 1988, 240 in 1993, and 363 in 2003.

The movement has been especially successful in mobilizing the inhabitants for active, Islamically oriented work in their communities. Muslim volunteers built internal roads in Arab villages, put up gender-segregated bus-stop shelters, opened kindergartens, libraries and clinics, and established drug-rehabilitation centers. Considerable efforts were directed to the promotion of sports. Indeed, the Islamic Movement found solutions to many of the daily hardships that resulted from the authorities ’ failure to meet the Arab sector 's needs. “If the state is not ready to help us, we shall help ourselves,” declared Shaykh Darwīsh, in what came to be the movement 's central motto.

This approach proved to be a prescription for success. In the 1998 municipal elections, the Islamic Movement won representation in thirteen localities, including the mayorship of five towns and villages: Umm al-Fahm, Kufr Qasim, Rahat, Jaljuliyya, and Tamra. In the 2003 municipal elections, it won representation in only nine localities, but it still maintained its power, especially in Umm al-Fahm, the second largest Arab town in Israel, where the movement 's candidate for mayoralty, Shaykh Hāshīm ʿAbd al-Rahmān, won 75 percent of the ballots, defeating a rival candidate representing a secular coalition. He thus preserved the movement 's dominance in the city since 1989. The Islamic Movement also kept its strong grip in Nazareth, the largest Arab town in Israel which was traditionally dominated by the Christian-Communist power, where the movement 's candidates secured eight out of seventeen seats in the city 's council, an identical figure to that of the Christian-Communist list candidates.

During the 1990s, The al-Aqsa Association for the Preservation of the waq   f and the Islamic Holy Sites, established by the Islamic Movement in 1991, mounted a campaign to restore the waq   f properties to their lawful owners in the Muslim community. In March 2001, the Islamic Movement established a Supreme Muslim Council, intended, inter alia, to serve as the elected Islamic body to which the waq   f properties would be reinstated.

The success of the Islamic Movement was not only the result of the religious appeal. For many, it was a vote of confidence in a movement that successfully dedicated itself to the social, economic, and cultural advancement of the Arab sector.

The religious views of the Islamic Movement appear to have been influenced by various sources. One is the traditional orthodox Sunnī approach taught in Arab schools and Islamic colleges in the West Bank. A second is the ideas of nineteenth and twentieth century Islamic reformists and modernists. The third, and perhaps most important, is the doctrine of the Muslim Brotherhood.

From its inception, the local Islamic Movement has been torn between three contradictory foci of loyalty or solidarity—Islam, Israel, and Palestine. The Islamic Movement 's program genuinely reflected the problematic interrelationship among Islamic revivalism, the declared secular character of Palestinian nationalism, and the need to act within the boundaries of Israeli law. This gave rise to confusion and often ambiguous language on sensitive issues such as the components of identity, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the solution of the Palestinian problem, the idea of a Palestinian Islamic state, the Islamic movements in the territories (Hamās, Islamic Jihād), the intifādah, and the Palestinian/Islamic armed struggle.

The complexities facing the revivalists can best be exemplified by their treatment of the issue of national identity. The four orbits of identity often mentioned by the Islamic Movement in Israel are Islam, Arabism, humanism, and Palestinian nationalism. Some local Islamic leaders refrain from mentioning Israel at all; others, wary of provoking a harsh reaction on the part of the Israeli authorities for implicitly denying Israel 's existence, mention the state, but only with reference to the technicality of citizenship. Leaders of the movement have been put under house arrest, and the movement 's press has been temporarily closed in reaction to the publication of what was described as inflammatory material.

Similarly complex is the question of a Palestinian Islamic state. Unlike their counterparts in the territories—who do not hesitate to call for a state from “the River to the Sea,” that is, from the Jordan to the Mediterranean—the Israeli Islamists are reserved. Some, like Shaykh Darwīsh, make a clear distinction between their support of the idea that genuine Islamic states should be established in the region and their rejection of the idea that an Islamic state should replace Israel. Others fully endorse the views of Hamās that the land of Palestine is an Islamic endowment (waq   f), which the sharīʿah rules that Muslims must liberate. They do not, of course, expound pursuing this goal, for this would compel the Israeli authorities to take action against them.

The question of whether or not to participate in the Knesset elections aroused an internal controversy within the Islamic Movement 's ranks. One of the most important developments before the 1996 elections was the movement 's reversal of its long-held position of staying out of Israeli parliamentary elections. In March 1996 the movement 's General Congress endorsed its participation in the Knesset elections within the framework of a unified Arab party headed by an Islamic Movement candidate.

The initiative to reverse the previous decision taken in 1995 came from the group of Islamic leaders associated with Shaykh Darwīsh. The motivation for this effort was the desire to unite the fragmented Arab vote and prevent a situation in which, as a result of increased factionalism, Arab representation in the Knesset would be weakened or even eliminated.

This new decision caused an immediate crisis within the movement ranks. Two of the more radical leaders, Shaykh Kamāl Khatib and Shaykh, Rāʿid Salāh, mayor of Umm al-Fahm at the time, announced that they did not view themselves bound by the movement 's resolution to participate in the Knesset elections, a move that eventually caused a split within the movement 's ranks into two factions: The first, headed by Shaykh Darwīsh, adopted a more pragmatic view toward integration into the Israeli society, including participation in Knesset elections. The second, headed by Shaykh Rāʿid Salāh, maintained a more dogmatic one.

Representatives of the latter faction argued that the Islamic Movement cannot integrate into the Israeli system, because it is based on a set of Jewish-Israeli laws that stood in complete contradiction to the very essence of Islamic law. Hence, this faction endorsed the idea of establishing independent institutions for the Arab population in Israel a step further. As part of its social world view, especially in light of events in October 2000 events, when twelve Israeli Arab citizens were killed during bloody clashes with Israeli security forces near Arab localities in the Galilee and in the Small Triangle area (in central Israel), the dogmatic faction considered establishing an alternative social infrastructure for a community that was capable of relying on itself (al-mujtamaʿ al-ʿisāmi, “self-help society”) by means of independent industrial, commercial, and financial institutions, and by its own health, security and education services. However, no significant practical steps had been taken to realize these ideas.

The Southern faction of the Islamic Movement has been represented in the Knesset since 1996. Shaykh Ibrahim Sarsur, leader of the faction, was elected to the 17th Knesset in 2006, running as head of a United Arab List, which included the Islamic Movement, the Arab Democratic Party, and the Arab Movement for Change. Sarsur replaced Advocate ʿAbd al-Mālik Dehamshe, who had served as the faction 's representative in the Knesset since 1996.

In May 2003, some central figures of the dogmatic faction, including the leader of the faction, Shaykh Salāh himself, had been put under arrest on the grounds of money laundering and transfer of money to Islamic activists in the West Bank. The faction 's press had been temporarily closed to what was described as publication of inflammatory material. Eventually, some of the detainees were released in January 2005 and the rest, including Shaykh Salāh, were released four months later. Since his release, Shaykh Salāh has been active in organizing protest against Israel 's excavations on Temple Mount under the slogan “Al-Aqsa is in Danger.”

The Islamic Movement 's continued success in Israel depends on the skill of its balancing act: its relentless promotion of the Islamization of Israeli Muslims in their personal conduct and community life, on the one hand, and, on the other, its keeping political action and propaganda compatible with the unique situation of a Muslim-Arab minority living in a Jewish state.



  • Israeli, Raphael. Muslim Fundamentalism in Israel. London: Brassey 's, 1993.
  • Layish, Aharon. “The Muslim Waqf in Israel.”Asian and African Studies2 (1966): 41–47.
  • Layish, Aharon. Women and Islamic Law in a Non-Muslim State. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1975.
  • Mayer, Thomas. Hitʿorerut ha-Muslemim be-Yisraʿel. Givʿat-Haviva, 1988.
  • Rekhess, Elie, and Rudnitzky, Arik, “Israel: Arab Population.”Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2d ed. (Detroit: 2006), Volume 10, pp. 728–733.
  • Rekhess, Elie. “Resurgent Islam in Israel.”Asian and African Studies27 (1993): 189–206.
  • Rekhess, Elie. “The Islamic Movement following the Municipal Elections: Rising Political Power?” In T he Municipal Elections in the Arab and Druze Sector (2003): Clans, Sectarianism and Political Parties, edited by Elie Rekhess and Sarah Ozacky-Lazar, pp. 33–41. Tel-Aviv: Tel-Aviv University, 2005.
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