Amazing as it may sound, until lately the most notorious terrorist group on Earth was not considered illegal in Israel. Only on Wednesday evening did Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, based on the recommendation of the Shin Bet security service, issue a decree defining the Islamic State as an “unlawful association.”
It must have been bureaucratic amnesia, nothing else.
Israel has been at the front against terrorism with innovative counterterrorism and security methods, doctrines, and measures for decades and does not need a wake-up call to understand the danger of Islamic State. But the truth is that Islamic State does not at the moment pose any serious threat to Israel’s security.
As a senior Israeli military source told me earlier this week, Islamic State has no presence in the 100-km. strip along the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights.
That area is mainly controlled by the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, local groups of the disfranchised Free Syrian Army, and some loosely associated units of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Both Nusra Front and the Muslim Brotherhood are radical Islamist organizations that hate and oppose Israel, but relative to Islamic State they can be considered as relatively “moderate.” Yet, according to the military source, it was noticed that in some villages in the area, some individuals – still very few of them – have started to preach the Islamic State ideology.
The same can be said also about the Palestinian territories.
In the West Bank and even more so in Gaza there have been a few attempts in the last few years to recruit members for local versions of Islamic State among Salafist associations. The Shin Bet is monitoring such efforts, as are the security agencies of the Palestinian Authority and even more so those of Hamas.
The Hamas police and security agency showed much more cruelty when cracking down, in several cases, on preachers in Gaza mosques and their disciples who tried to preach Islamic State sermons, to issue decrees in the spirit of its ideology, and to announce the establishment of a caliphate.
There have been dozens of Israeli Arabs who traveled to Syria, usually via Turkey, to join the fight against the regime of President Bashar Assad. At least one of them has been killed in action. A few who survived the fighting and returned were arrested by the Shin Bet and indicted.
But all of the known cases were of volunteers who joined the Nusra Front.
There is so far only one known case of Israeli citizens who joined the jihad war in Syria in Islamic State style.
They are two members of the Alkian family from Hura, a Beduin community in the Negev. The Shin Bet arrested another member of the family who assisted them with financial support and arranged for them to meet an Islamic State liaison in Turkey.
The fate of his relatives in Syria is unknown.
This week witnessed another development against the Islamic State front as a result of the beheading of Steven Sotloff, the American-Israeli journalist who wrote also for The Jerusalem Report. US Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in preparation for his upcoming trip to the Middle East to rally regional support and coordinate efforts to design a coherent strategy against Islamic State.
The phone call aroused curiosity and generated questions about a possible Israeli role if an international coalition is indeed created to fight the Islamic State barbarians in Iraq and Syria.
The truth of the matter is that Israel can do very little.
Israel’s contribution to such a coalition would be marginal. Israel can share intelligence mainly about its areas of interest: Gaza, the West Bank and the border area with Syria. Israeli intelligence coverage of Iraq is very limited, but Israel does have good relations with the Kurds in Iraq who are now the spearhead in the war against Islamic State.
Incidentally, the Kurds are supported also by Iran. It was the Iranian foreign minister who admitted last week in a joint press conference with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani that his country supplied the Kurds with weapons and ammunition. It can be said about this indirect Israeli- Kurdish-Iranian triangle that Middle Eastern politics sometimes make strange bedfellows.
Even if Israel wished to play a bigger role in the international battle against Islamic State terrorism, this would be almost impossible. The Muslim states that are the potential partners for such a coalition – Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey and Egypt – would not wish to see Israel among their ranks. They may well be ready to accept secret Israeli cooperation, but not in the open.
Israel shared such an experience more than 20 years ago. In 1990-91 when the US and the West built an international coalition against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait, Israel was asked to stay away from Iraq and not interfere. Israel actually was intimidated and threatened by the George H.W. Bush administration to swallow its pride and not even retaliate when Hussein’s 39 Scud missiles hit the country.
Israeli leaders were warned that any intervention would undermine the international effort and lead to the disintegration of the coalition.