Salah is the most senior Arab
Islamist in Israel to have
Supporters denied any wrongdoing by Sheik Raed Salah who is the leader of the Northern Islamic Movement in Israel.
Israeli Arabs accused the Israeli authorities of purposely carrying out the sweep on the traditional birthday of the Prophet Muhammad in an attempt to provoke them.
“The timing of the arrests is not a coincidence,” Sheikh Kamal Al-Khatib, the deputy leader of the Islamic Movement, told Aljazeera.
Al Khatib called the arrests, “part of Israel’s continuing aggressive policy towards the Islamic Movement that targets all Arabs in the region” and heatedly denied the charge that the Islamic Movement has passed on funds to supporters of terrorism.
"We have no connection with an organisation called Hamas," he told reporters at the group's headquarters in a mosque in the crowded, neglected Israeli Arab town of Umm Al Fahm. "We help (Palestinian) orphans, but directly, not through any third party. Not one cent goes to families of those who carry out attacks."
The Islamist Palestinian group Hamas also denied having any relation with Israel's Islamic Movement.
"We have no organisational links with our brothers on the 1948 land," Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya.
Salah's arrest allegedly came after
a two-year investigation
"We condemn this Israeli policy against our people," he added. "The members are Palestinians and Muslims, and we are Palestinians and Muslims, this is all we have in common.
Many Palestinians do not recognise the state of Israel and refer to it as pre-1948 Palestine.
Al Aqsa mosque dispute
"These arrests are aimed at undermining any efforts to stop Israel's policies against the Al-Aqsa mosque," Hamas' Haniya added.
The Northern Islamic Movement has its headquarters in Umm Al Fahm. A political party that supports the idea of an Islamic Jerusalem, it denounces secularism and denies the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. The "southern branch" takes part in Israeli political life and has several representatives in Israel's parliament.
The arrests came after US Secretary of State Colin Powell, on a visit to the region earlier this week, urged Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to dismantle resistance groups behind attacks on Israelis during an uprising for independence.
”We are proud of being Muslims and the attempts of the Israeli government to strip the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of its Islamic aspect are fruitless," said Al Khatib. "The religious dimensions of the conflict can never be removed.”
Sheikh Raed Salah had often accused the Jewish state of trying to undermine Islamic rights in Jerusalem.
"It's a witchhunt," said Ahmed Tibi, a Arab member of the Israeli parliament. He accused Israel of a counterproductive attack on a group devoted to charity and social welfare.
Israel's Arab minority has been mostly quiet during the uprising for independence in Palestinian areas, but there have been isolated cases of people charged with aiding militants.
Some Arabs became citizens of Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948 and now make up 20 percent of the population.
They have complained of institutionalised discrimination and the 31-month-old conflict between Palestinians and Israel has driven a wedge of suspicion between Israel's Arabs and Jews.
About 200 Islamic Movement supporters demonstrated outside the Tel Aviv court where Salah and 14 other members faced a preliminary hearing after their early morning arrest by police and agents of the Shin Bet security service. A judge ordered them to be held in custody while the investigation continues.
Some read the Quran and others held up a banner reading, "Stop incitement against the Islamic Movement." Additional protests were planned for Friday, the group said.