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ISRAEL. In 1992 the Arab minority in Israel numbered approximately 914,000, or 18.5 percent of the total Israeli population (the figures include the Arab residents of East Jerusalem, estimated at 146,ooo, but not of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). Seventy-seven percent of the Arab minority (704,000) were Muslim, while the rest were Christian (14 percent or 128,ooo) and Druze (9 percent or 82,000).

israelThe 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 The Supreme Muslim Council ceased to exist, having been superseded by the Jordanian religious authorities.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 shari’ah in the new Jewish state. Muslim religious affairs, including the administration of awgdf (sg., wagf; religious endowments), devolved to the Israeli authorities, primarily to the Muslim Department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

The shari’ah 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 Qadis Law, which stipulated that the gddis be selected by a committee with a Muslim majority, appointed by the president of Israel, and dispense justice in accordance with Israeli laws. In 1993 there were seven gddis in seven shari’ah courts of first instance and one appeals court located in Jerusalem. In 1992 the courts reviewed 4,952 cases, 4o percent of which dealt with divorce and alimony.


The Muslim religious courts in Israel were granted exclusive and extensive jurisdiction in matters of personal status and wagf. The Knesset, however, restricted the jurisdiction of the shari’ah 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]: So-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 supersession 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 shari`ah 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 wagf 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 wagf khayri property 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, the Islamist movement 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-Jihad (the Jihad Family) and was organized as a paramilitary unit. The group’s objective was to wage jihad against Israel, undermine the basis of Jewish-Zionist existence, and cause the state to collapse from within. Usrat al-Jihad 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-i98os the Islamic activist Shaykh `Abd Allah Nimr Darwish moved to center stage. A resident of Kufr Qasim, Darwish was a graduate of the Nablus shad’ah college. In 1979 he joined Usrat al-Jihad; he was arrested and convicted in 1981 and released in 1983. When Darwish resumed his politico-religious career, he gave Islamic activism in Israel a new nonmilitant direction. Darwish 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 steadily; the number of mosques in Israel grew from 6o in 1967 to 240 in 1993.

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 sex-segregated busstop 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 Darwish, in what came to be the movement’s central motto.

This approach proved to be a prescription for success. In the 1989 municipal elections Islamic representatives competed in fourteen localities and won nearly 30 percent of the total seats. In five villages and townships Islamic candidates won the mayoralty. In Umm alFahm, the second largest Arab town in Israel, Islamic candidates under the leadership of Shaykh Rd’id Salah secured a majority in the town council as well as the mayor’s office. In the 1993 municipal elections the movement increased its power. The number of representatives grew from 51 to 59 and the Islamic trend won representation in sixteen localities (compared to fourteen in 1989). All incumbent mayors and heads of local councils representing the movement (except one) were reelected.

The religious views of the Islamic movement appear to have been influenced by various sources. One is the traditional orthodox Sunni 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, which helped shape the social and political perceptions of the Israeli Islamic movement to a large extent.

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 the confusion and the 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 (Hamas, Islamic Jihad), the intifadah, 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, do 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 what was described as publication of 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 Darwish, 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 Hamas that the land of Palestine is an Islamic endowment (wagf), which the shari`ah 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 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 at a level compatible with their unique situation of a Muslim-Arab minority living in a Jewish state.

[See also Arab-Israeli Conflict; Hamas; Jihad Organizations; Palestine Liberation Organization; and West Bank and Gaza.]


Israeli, Raphael. Muslim Fundamentalism in Israel. London, 1993. Layish, Aharon. “The Muslim Waqf in Israel.” Asian and African Studies 2 (1966): 41-47.

Layish, Aharon. Women and Islamic Law in a Non-Muslim State. New York, 1975.

Mayer, Thomas. Hitorerut ha Muslemin be-Yisra’el. Giv`at-Havivah, 1988.

Rekhess, Elie. “Resurgent Islam in Israel.” Asian and African Studies 27 (1993)


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/israel/

  • writerPosted On: July 1, 2014
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