Sunday, November 7, 2010

Israeli Security 101: Don't Bulldoze a Mosque

Last night, the Israeli Police demolished a mosque in the Bedouin city of Rahat, claiming that it was built illegally and funded by the northern branch of the Islamic Movement. The demolition caused rioting in the town of 52,000 people, to which police responded with tear gas. Five individuals were arrested (likely for throwing stones) and a general strike has been called today for Rahat.

The northern branch of the Islamic movement in Israel is well known for being anti-Israel, and its position on the use of violence has been ambiguous at best. Its leader, Sheikh Raed Saleh, was arrested last year for incitement. Like many radical Islamic movements, it works on a system of "dawa," giving funds for mosques, and scholarships for Israeli Arabs to attend Muslim religious school. The social and economic vulnerability of the Bedouin allows the Islamic movement to move in and provide these basic goods, services, and funding in lieu of the government doing so. This aid then buys the Movement tacit consent for its more radical activities.

The logical response to this situation would be for Israel to improve the socio-economic condition of the Bedouin by providing better housing, jobs, and development in their communities. This policy would a) wedge out the Islamic movement b) decrease their ability to incite violence, and c) demonstrate the salience for Bedouin of legitimate means of nonviolent political protest like litigation or lobbying.

Israel's response last night, in contrast, was to destroy a house of worship under cover of darkness. It used the justification of legality to circumvent the considerations of security which Israeli citizens, Arab and Jewish alike, expect from their government. Most importantly, the government demonstrated its ongoing lack of communication between its political and security sectors. The Israeli police, and the Israel Land Authority (ILA) are not considering the long-term security risks which the policy of demolition entails. It's not their fault per se for not doing so, but in Israel, domestic and foreign security are intimately intertwined. The government needs to better integrate the ILA and the Israeli police into its overall security strategy.

It is completely legitimate for a state to want to enforce the law. But destroying illegal construction in Rahat while ignoring it in the West Bank is the height of hypocrisy which the anti-Israel crowd will be sure to point out. More importantly, it places the technicality of the law over the pragmatic considerations of security. In the future, Israel must be careful to weigh whether an action being legal makes it the best course of action. Last night's riot shows that the government has a ways to go in successfully making this assessment.

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