The 15,000 Muslims who crowded into the courtyards of the Temple Mount mosques on Oct. 30 became another news story about COVID-19. But the real story was much bigger: the enormous anti-France protest near the Al-Aqsa Mosque was organized by Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Islamic Liberation Party), about which the Israeli public has heard little if anything.

There is a direct line connecting the ideology of this movement—which has already been outlawed by a number of European and Arab states—and the ideology of the throat-slashing Islamic terrorists who recently resumed activity in France. At least in terms of its goals, if not its tactics, Hizb ut-Tahrir is the twin of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, whose people were behind the terrorist shooting in Vienna on Nov. 2.

In eastern Jerusalem, Hizb ut-Tahrir has tens of thousands of supporters. The movement holds weekly lessons on the Temple Mount, generally on Thursdays, and has branches in Abu Dis, al-Azariya, Ramallah, al-Bira, the Old City of Jerusalem, Beit Hanina, Beit Safafa and Sur Baher, as well as one in Hebron. According to security officials, the movement has been gaining popularity in recent years. Now it turns out that its global threat has been growing as well.

The Islamic Liberation Party is not new. Since it was founded in Jerusalem in 1952 by Sheikh Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani it has been preaching the establishment of an Islamic caliphate as existed under the Islamic prophet Muhammad, which it calls “the pure period,” and the establishment of an Islamist state. The group says that the term tahrir (“liberation”) refers to a total liberation from Western cultural influence. Territorial liberation is only the second step.

Members of the movement, which also operates in Britain, Australia, Indonesia, the United States and several Arab countries, aspire to replace every national government with a global Muslim rule. In their view, the governments in Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, as well as Fatah and even Hamas, are all national in nature, and therefore obstacles in the way of the dream of a worldwide caliphate.

David Koren, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a former adviser to the mayor of Jerusalem on eastern Jerusalem issues, explained that “the influence of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria is much wider than it appears.”

“The real question that the organization’s activity has raised for years is whether and when it will trade its dawa-based activity—strengthening religion through persuasion and preaching—with violent jihad like the recent events in France,” said Koren.

“In the Palestinian context, Hizb ut-Tahrir promotes two main issues: laying the groundwork to make al-Aqsa Mosque a future platform on which the world caliphate will eventually be declared, and challenging Jordan’s position as guardian of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem,” he said.

In 2016, Israel’s then-Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan presented the Cabinet with a proposal to outlaw Hizb ut-Tahrir. The material given to the ministers included examples from all over the world of how Hizb ut-Tahrir was transitioning to terrorism. It included many quotes from extremists, as well as inciting sermons preaching by the movement’s people in Jerusalem.

But Israel’s Shin Bet security agency opposed outlawing the group, arguing that in Israel, the group was not making the move toward violence and terrorism, and should be allowed to operate openly to avoid it going underground, which would make it harder for the security establishment to keep tabs on its activities. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who originally supported Erdan’s position, eventually sided with the Shin Bet.

A briefing at Mike’s Place

That decision from 2016 has come at a price. Even if Hizb ut-Tahrir itself does not carry out terrorist attacks, its influence outside its own circle can and has led members of other organizations to plan or attempt terrorist acts. One example is the Islamic State cell that was exposed in the Shuafat refugee camp in October 2016. Another is a shooting attack against a bus in the Ramot neighborhood in March 2016. One of the two terrorists behind the shooting had a black Hizb ut-Tahrir flag in his car.

An earlier example was the 2013 targeted killing of three Salafi operatives from the Yatta village who were planning terrorist attacks against Israeli targets.

Even the terrorist bombing at Mike’s Place bar on the Tel Aviv beachfront in April 2003, which was executed by two terrorists who held British citizenship and in which three people were murdered, was linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Hamas might have claimed responsibility, but it turned out that the bombing was perpetrated by two Muslim Brits of Pakistani descent who had met in London with a sheikh identified with Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The cost of not outlawing Hizb ut-Tahrir includes accepting the content preached by the movement’s spokespeople in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount itself. In many aspects, it resembles the content preached by Islamic extremists elsewhere in the world, including France.

The most prominent spokesman for the group in eastern Jerusalem in recent years has been Sheikh Issam Amira. Amira thinks that “the Islamic caliphate should be recreated so it can lead the armies in the war on heretics,” and that “to achieve that, the activists must work together with all Muslims and establish an Islamic state.” According to Amira, “This demands the destruction of institutions in the Islamic world, without mercy or pity toward any of those entities.”

In the past, Amira has also spoken about “enemies who believe in more than one god,” and offered them three options: to convert to Islam, pay a jizya poll tax, or “for us to seek Allah’s help in fighting them.”

Another sheikh, Nidal Siyam, who at the Oct. 30 protest spoke against France, called on “people of the nation who are loyal and work in its armies to move ahead to turn the tables on the oppressor leaders.” Incidentally, back in 2017, Siyam prayed at Al-Aqsa for “the slaughter of Europeans and Americans and our [Arab] criminal and traitorous rulers.”

“O Allah, do not leave any of them on earth … O Allah, replace with an emir of the believers,” he prayed.

The current emir of Hizb ut-Tahrir is Ata Abu Rashta, 77, a native of the Hebron area and a civil engineer by profession. Until 2003, he lived in Jordan and then moved to an unknown location after he was arrested a few times and Jordan limited his activity.

Against Crusader values

Another Hizb ut-Tahrir preacher, Ali Abu Ahmad, said recently that the response to French President Emmanuel Macron, who “supported the publication of offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad,” would be to re-establish the Islamic caliphate and “the destruction of Paris to rubble by Muslim armies, led by the caliphate.” These remarks and similar ones, most of which were made on Muhammad’s birthday, align with an official statement by Hizb ut-Tahrir in Israel after the Muhammad cartoons were republished in France that called French and Western civilization “false, atheist, and perverted … hated by the true religion [Islam]” and called for jihad as a “true response to heretics.”

Shaul Bartal of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, an expert on jihadist groups, has spent much time researching Hizb ut-Tahrir and its activity in Israel. France, he explained, “is now defined by Hizb ut-Tahrir and similar groups as an enemy of Islam. The way the organization sees it, France represents Crusader values which at their core oppose the Prophet Muhammad. Islam has an obligation to oppose Crusader values and defend Islamic holy sites, including Al-Aqsa.”

Bartal said that every time Islam clashes with secular France, “it illustrates the Crusader spirit of the West for Islamic radicals. The Crusaders, who conquered the Holy Land, and now the French, are the ultimate enemy. An ordinary person sees the Crusaders as history. Hizb ut-Tahrir sees them as a reality, who must be killed. The event on the Temple Mount was just part of the picture.”

Asked what place Jews occupy in Hizb ut-Tahrir’s vision, Bartal said, “Unlike other Palestinian movements, which present the Palestinian issue as a problem with Zionism or Western colonialism, Zionism isn’t mentioned in the writings of the Islamic Liberation Party. The conflict is between Islam and the Jews. Israel is mentioned as a state of the Jews or as a Jewish entity. They view Palestine is … an inseparable part of Dar al-Islam [House of Islam] and no Jew has the right to live there.”

Bartal added that Hizb ut-Tahrir “praises terrorists and terrorist attacks and any aggressive activity against Jews. This is an organization that preaches hatred of Jews, with extensive literature against Jews and against the State of Israel and the West in general.”

Modesty patrols in alleys

A few years ago, Lt. Col. (res.) Baruch Yedid, a former adviser on Arab affairs to the IDF’s Central Command, wrote a position paper about Hizb ut-Tahrir activity in Israel. Yedid fears that the veteran “liberation” party is morphing into a jihadist group.

“No more spreading ideas in closed parlor meetings, but developing violent groups, forming ties with global jihad organizations and setting up cells and bases,” he warned.

Right now, Yedid says, the group’s main base of operations is London.

The group, he said, “is a political Islamist movement that does not recognize the laws of any nation, Arab or western, and wants to establish a religious state.”

According to Yedid, membership in the group is kept secret, and members have been hiding their activity for decades.

“The only allow in Muslim men and women who adopt the most stringent religious lifestyle. Recently, inspired by Al-Qaeda and Hamas, the group’s confidence has been growing and it isn’t taking as much care as it did to keep activities closed and secret, and members go door to door to recruit,” he said.

Yedid also talks about members of the group in eastern Jerusalem who beat young people caught consuming alcohol, or who break the Ramadan fast. In the alleyways of eastern Jerusalem and villages in the eastern half of the city, they also beat young women who are not dressed modestly enough, he said. Members of the group are the ones who beat the Egyptian foreign minister with their shoes when he visited Al-Aqsa Mosque, he added, noting that Hizb ut-Tahrir sees the Palestinian Authority, as well as Arab governments like Egypt or Jordan, as legitimate targets because of their “un-Islamic” conduct which, it feels, “delays” the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and the spread of the religion and the arrival of Judgment Day.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is active in 50 nations and has about one million registered members. Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Azerbaijan and many other countries have arrested its members, and put some of them in prison. In Egypt, Turkey, China and most Arab states, the movement is banned. Germany did the same after it turned out that the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attack, Mohammad Atta, had been influenced by Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ideology. Western observers view the group as having paved the way for Al-Qaeda.

But for now, Israel has avoided outlawing Hizb ut-Tahrir in order to make it easier for the security and defense establishment to track it. Why is Israel allowing members of the extremist group to make the Temple Mount a center for their activity? As yet, there is no answer to that question.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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