Israel demolishes illegal mosque in Arab town
RAHAT, Israel—Israeli police demolished an illegally built mosque in this impoverished Arab town on Sunday, touching off rock-throwing protests by residents and fueling new grievances against the government by the country's Arab minority.
Before dawn, police armed with clubs and shields surrounded the area as a bulldozer knocked down the mosque in the southern desert town of Rahat.
Arab residents shouted in protest and prayed close to the site. Later some hurled rocks at police, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. There were no injuries and five people were arrested, he said.
Rosenfeld said the two-story mosque was knocked down under a court ruling.
Hours after it was demolished, residents began pouring cement to build the foundations for a new mosque on a nearby plot.
"They demolished it and we are rebuilding," said Rahat Mayor Fayiz Abu Sahiban. He said residents built the mosque illegally because Israeli authorities would take too long to approve it, though the municipality tried to retroactively obtain a building permit. He also said most of Rahat's 13 other mosques were built illegally.
The move is likely to further sour relations between Israel's Jews and minority Arab community, which makes up one-fifth of the country's seven million citizens. Although Israeli Arabs have full citizenship rights and participate actively in Israeli democracy, they have suffered pervasive discrimination and tend to identify with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Rahat is a fairly unique case of a town dominated by Bedouins -- once nomadic Arab tribes who have their own dialects and customs. They once served in large numbers in Israel's military, but years of neglect over housing and employment have pushed many toward radical Muslim movements.
Relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel have deteriorated as Jews increasingly question the loyalty of their Arab neighbors while jittery Arab residents fear they are being unfairly characterized as a threat from within.
A Muslim cleric from the northern Israeli Arab town of Nazareth was charged Sunday with "supporting a terror group, incitement to violence and spreading al-Qaida ideology," the court administration said. The cleric, Sheikh Nazem Abu Salim, preached in his Friday sermons in support of global jihad and killing Israelis, the indictment said. He was arrested last month.
Commenting on the destroyed mosque, a spokeswoman for the Israel Lands Administration said it had been built on state-owned land without a permit. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to comment on the matter.
Illegal building is a pervasive problem among Israel's Arab minority, who say officials do not free up enough land for them to build legally.
Authorities rarely demolish mosques, but this particular house of worship was financed by Israel's northern branch of the Islamic Movement, radical Muslim Israeli group that is frequently in conflict with authorities.
Critics note that Israeli authorities have not yet acted on a court ruling to evacuate Jewish settlers from a building in disputed east Jerusalem that was illegally expanded.
Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this report from Jerusalem.