The five men, who include the group's head Shaikh Rayd Salah and a former mayor of Um al-Fahm town, were indicted by an Israeli court in July 2003 for allegedly channelling money from charities in Europe and the Middle East to the Islamic Movement in Israel and thereafter to Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The Islamic Movement leaders insist their only crime was to give food and clothing to bereaved and poor Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel considers any help extended to families of Palestinian resistance fighters in the occupied territories as an "abetment to terror".

Salah described the trial as a "monumental farce".

He said: "They are punishing us for our religious beliefs. They want us and Muslims everywhere to say nothing and do nothing while Palestinian children are starving to death due to Israeli blockades and sieges of Palestinian town and villages. This we can't do, neither as Muslims nor as human beings."

Presumed guilty

Speaking to Aljazeera.net through one his of lawyers, Salah accused the Israeli justice system of "fascist practices through twisting of facts, far-fetched interpretation of the law and treating non-Jewish suspects as guilty unless proven innocent".

The court has heard testimonies
of prominent religious figures

"I never saw a Jew brought to trial and dumped for 19 months behind bars for helping a bereaved Jewish family with clothing and food or money.

"But, as you see, we are being punished and tormented for giving food and clothing to those helpless poor and orphaned Palestinians whose breadwinners have been killed by the Israeli occupation army," he said.

"In another country, our efforts would be lauded and appreciated, but Israel is not just another country. Israel is a fascist state - the world should understand this fact."

According to Israeli law, a suspect may be detained for nine months until all legal proceedings against him or her are finished.

However, in the case of the five Islamic Movement leaders, the law has been stretched to allow indefinite and open-ended detention, their legal team says. They are now in the 19th month of their incarceration.

Not optimistic

This seems to be the main reason behind the five leaders' decision to go on hunger strike.

"This is not Sweden. Israel is a country where the law is subservient to politics and security"

Mahmud Abu Husayn,
Islamic Movement leaders' defence lawyer

According to Mahmud Abu Husayn, one of the defence lawyers, the Israeli supreme court will decide within 10 days whether to extend the defendants' incarceration or release them on bail.

Abu Husayn told Aljazeera.net he was not optimistic about a positive decision.

"This is not Sweden. Israel is a country where the law is subservient to politics and security."

A spokesman for the Israeli ministry of justice refused to answer questions from Aljazeera.net on the issue.

The spokesman said the ministry doesn't comment on cases that are being deliberated in court.

Islamophobia

According to Taufiq Ayrir, editor-in-chief of the Islamic Movement's weekly, Sawt al Haq wa alhurriya, the trial is "an expression of Israeli Islamophobia".

"They can't say publicly they hate Muslims for being Muslims lest they be compared to Nazis. However, they indulge in all these fascist practices and repression of non-Jews under the rubric of fighting terror."

Ayrir, who has attended several court sessions, said the Israeli state attorney was "hell-bent on incriminating Islam".

The Islamic Movement enjoys a
high degree of public support

"They are trying zakat (obligatory charity), prayers and fasting. They are trying Islam and the Quran. This is modern anti-Semitism and Jews are the oppressors now."

'Quasi-fascist'

Ayrir told Aljazeera.net that at one point of the extended trial, the state attorney sought to incriminate Salah and his colleagues by quoting a verse from Islam's holy book, Quran, stating that "Don't think that those killed for the sake of God are dead, verily they are alive, but you perceive not".

Ayrir strongly condemned the Israeli justice system, describing it as "ethno-centric and racist."

He said: "Imagine they brought one of the most extreme self-proclaimed Islamophobes, Rafael Yisraeli, to testify against the detainees."

Yisraeli was a co-founder of the quasi-fascist party Moledet (Motherland), which openly calls for the expulsion of all non-Jews from Israel/Palestine.

Yisraeli reportedly argued in his testimony that "terrorism against Israel feeds on the Quran and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad".