Inside Israel

Islamic Movement elects new spiritual leader seen as close to Ra’am’s MK Abbas

The Southern Islamic Movement has elected a new spiritual leader over the weekend, replacing Sheikh Hamad Abu Daabes, who led the faction for 12 years.

The Islamic Movement said on Saturday night that Sheikh Safwat Freij had been elected to the organization’s top spot. Observers widely saw Freij’s election as good news for Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas, as the sheikh is considered to be close to Abbas and to share his worldview.

Freij, from the central Arab city of Kfar Qasim, previously served as the Islamic Movement’s deputy chief and ran a charitable organization on the faction’s behalf. Freij’s father was killed during a notorious massacre committed by Israeli police in the city during the Suez Crisis in 1956.

Founded in the 1980s, the Islamic Movement was thrust into the spotlight over the past year when its political branch, the Islamist Ra’am party, joined the coalition government.

The movement is informally divided between its more radical “northern” branch, led by Sheikh Raed Salah, and the “southern” leadership, until recently led by Daabes, which is considered more moderate. Israel banned the northern branch for alleged terror ties in 2015, and Salah recently finished serving over a year in prison for incitement.

In contrast to some of his firebrand predecessors, Abbas has adopted a pragmatic approach.

In remarks that stirred controversy among Arab Israelis, Abbas said in late November that Arabs should strategically cease contesting Israel’s Jewish character.

“Israel was born a Jewish state, that was the decision of the people, and the question is not what is the identity of the state — it was born this way and it will remain this way,” Abbas said at the time.

Freij defeated his main opponent, Sheikh Mohammad Salameh Hassan, by a vote of 293-214. Hassan was considered to represent a more traditional approach for the Islamic Movement, referring to Israel’s government as an “occupation government” and calling all Israelis “settlers.”

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