[News] Israel’s Stasi Watch Over Imams

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu May 6 10:14:50 EDT 2010

Israel's Stasi Watch Over Imams

Islamic posts filled by secret police

By <http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/jonathancook>Jonathan Cook

Thursday, May 06, 2010

(Jaffa) -- Job interviews for the position of imam at mosques in 
Israel are conducted not by senior clerics but by the Shin Bet, 
Israel's secret police, a labour tribunal has revealed.

Sheikh Ahmed Abu Ajwa, 36, is fighting the Shin Bet's refusal to 
approve his appointment as an imam in a case that has lifted the lid 
on Israel's secret surveillance of the country's Islamic leaders.

At a hearing last month, a senior government official admitted that 
60 undercover inspectors were employed effectively as spies to 
collect information on Muslim clerics, reporting on political 
opinions they expressed in sermons and relaying gossip about their 
private lives.

Sheikh Abu Ajwa took his case to the tribunal after the Shin Bet 
rejected him three years ago as the imam of a mosque in Jaffa, next 
to Tel Aviv, despite his being the sole candidate. He was told after 
a security clearance interview that his views were "extremist" and 
too critical of Israel, even though an imam is not officially defined 
as a security-related position.

"During one interview with the Shin Bet, they told me they had been 
collecting information on me since I was 15," Sheikh Abu Ajwa said.

"I am the first imam ever to challenge the Shin Bet's role in our 
appointments. It's important to win a precedent-setting ruling from 
the courts to stop this kind of interference."

Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer representing Sheikh Abu Ajwa, 
said that, as far as it could be determined, no similar vetting of 
rabbis took place before their hiring.

"This sort of surveillance relating to a non-security position like 
an imam comes straight out of the era of the Stasi police in East 
Germany or the McCarthy period in the United States," he said.

The traditional independence of the local Islamic authorities was 
removed at Israel's creation in 1948, when the government confiscated 
almost all waqf property -- endowments of land and property used for 
the benefit of the Palestinian Muslim community -- removing the main 
source of income for clerics, the Islamic courts and charitable services.

According to experts, as much as a fifth of Palestine's cultivated 
land was waqf property before 1948. Israel passed most of it to 
Zionist organisations like the Jewish National Fund or sold it to developers.

Responsibility for hundreds of mosques, cemeteries and other holy 
sites, meanwhile, was handed either to the religious affairs ministry 
or to Islamic boards of trustees appointed by the government.

Today, most imams and all Islamic judges must submit to a security 
clearance interview before being awarded a state salary.

Israel's Arab minority, one fifth of the population, have long 
charged that many of its Muslim leaders are little more than 
government placemen, whose Islamic learning takes second place to 
their co-operation with the authorities.

Sabri Jiryis, a historian of Israel's early years, has noted that the 
boards of trustees repeatedly rubber-stamped government decisions to 
sell off Islamic property to developers. Most notoriously Jaffa's 
board approved in 1971 selling an Islamic cemetery in Tel Aviv on 
which the Hilton hotel was built.

Sheikh Abu Ajwa said: "In Jaffa, the government appointed many 
clerics because they had proved their loyalty, though not to other 
Muslims. They sold off our property -- but you can't sell what 
belongs to Allah."

Jaffa, which was once the commercial capital of Palestine, today has 
a population of nearly 50,000 residents, of which two thirds are 
Jewish and the rest Muslim.

The sheikh has been preaching at the seafront Jabalya mosque, one of 
six in the town, since he was 19, making him reportedly the youngest 
person to serve as an imam in Israel's history. He qualified as an 
imam at an Islamic college in the Israeli Arab city of Umm al Fahm in 1998.

The local community universally backed him as the new imam when his 
predecessor retired three years ago, but he cannot be officially 
recognised, and is ineligible for a salary, without the interior 
ministry's approval.

As part of his application, he was interviewed by a Shin Bet officer 
named "Dror" who, he said, waved at him a folder of confidential 
information collected by undercover inspectors. "We will decide who 
is the next imam," Dror told him, according to Sheikh Abu Ajwa. The 
sheikh was asked mainly about his political opinions and 
demonstrations he had attended.

The Shin Bet's assessment, revealed to the tribunal, was that Sheikh 
Abu Ajwa's appointment "may jeopardise security and peace in Jaffa". 
In addition, the agency told the Haaretz newspaper that the sheikh 
"has had a long involvement in hostile activity, which manifested 
itself in incitement against the state and its Jewish citizens".

Sheikh Abu Ajwa said this was a reference to his position as the 
leader in Jaffa of the popular northern wing of the Islamic Movement. 
Its leader, Sheikh Raed Salah, has raised the hackles of Jewish 
officials both by running a campaign warning of Israel's intentions 
to take over the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem and by 
promoting a boycott of parliamentary elections.

The head of the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, warned in 2007 that his 
agency's role was to prevent any activities, including democratic 
ones, that worked against the interests of a Jewish state.

Yaakov Salameh, the head of the religious minorities department at 
the interior ministry, told the tribunal last month that his 
inspectors collected information on Muslim religious leaders, 
including rumours about their private lives, such as whether they had 
had an affair or beat their children. The information was then handed 
to the Shin Bet, which assessed whether they were suitable to be appointed.

Mr Sfard said it was an "extraordinary" admission, given that under 
Israeli law the criminal records of candidates for religious 
appointments could only be considered if the applicant agreed to the 
information being handed over.

David Baker, a spokesman for the prime minister's office, which is 
responsible for the Shin Bet, refused to comment on whether the 
appointment of rabbis followed the same procedures as those for imams.

Sheikh Abu Ajwa observed that many rabbis, particularly those in the 
settlements, said "very extreme things but no one spies on them. In 
fact, they have full government support."

He admitted he was outspoken in his sermons, but said he had never 
broken any laws and never advocated violence. "I talk about our 
Palestinian identity and criticise the policies of the state in its 
treatment of us as a minority," he said. "These are very sensitive 
things that they want to prevent us from talking about."

During one Shin Bet interview, he said, he had been told: "We know 
everything about you, we are always watching you."

The goal of such interviews was often to recruit Muslim clerics to 
become informers themselves, he added.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. 
His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, 
Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and 
"Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair" (Zed 
Books). His website is <http://www.jkcook.net/>www.jkcook.net.

A version of this article originally appeared in The National 
(<http://www.thenational.ae/>www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.

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