Analysis: The phenomenon of Israeli Arabs joining Islamic State

Israeli law enables the arrest of its citizens who fight in enemy territory, as well as their interrogation and indictment – but only once they return from the battlefields.

October 20, 2014 09:57
3 minute read.
Turkish-Syrian border

A black flag belonging to the Islamic State is seen near the Syrian town of Kobani, as pictured from the Turkish-Syrian border. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The unconfirmed reports that Dr. Othman Abdel Kian, an Israeli physician, died in Syria fighting for Islamic State, have refocused the media spotlight and public discourse on the links between the Arab community in Israel and the state.

As far as the Israeli authorities know, he is the third Israeli who joined the radical jihadist movement and died in action since the beginning of the civil war in Syria threeand- a-half years ago. The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), which according to its legal mandate aims to prevent terrorism and sabotage, is monitoring the developments in this area. Shin Bet analysts estimate that 30 Israeli Arabs have joined Islamic State.

Though each volunteer has a different background, common ground can be found among most of them. They have all studied abroad in Jordan or Europe, where they met charismatic preachers in a mosque, or recruiters who put the spell on them.

These young students were attracted to this new world they had discovered, and began a process of religious radicalization that eventually led them to the killing fields of Islamic State. The pattern of behavior was similar. In most cases, they disconnected from family and friends and traveled to Turkey, a legal and easy passage zone for any Israeli or Western recruit.

“Since it’s perfectly legal for Israeli citizens to go to Turkey, we can’t stop them on their way unless there is precise information about their intention, and even then all we can do is to warn that they are on our radar and we know about their plans,” a senior security officer said.

While in Turkey, these recruits meet their liaison – an Islamic State activist who briefs them on how to maintain field security and be cautious, while taking care of their needs and escorting them to a trusted crossing point with Syria.

Once in Syria, recruits are further briefed and brainwashed, and then taken to a secret location, where they undergo a crash course to become acquainted with basic military skills. After a week or two – and according to their military performance and previous civil experience – the recruits are then dispatched to Islamic State units in Syria or Iraq.

Israeli law enables the arrest of its citizens who fight in enemy territory, as well as their interrogation and indictment – but only once those Israeli citizens return from the battlefields. There have been a few such cases, when Israeli Arabs were sentenced to jail on charges of illegal entry into enemy countries, such as Syria, and on charges of unlawful military training and association or membership in a terrorist group.

Incidentally, just a few weeks ago the government declared Islamic State an unlawful association.

The Arab minority in Israel consists of 1.7 million people.

The 30 or so of these citizens who have volunteered to fight for the Islamic State cause are but a marginal phenomenon.

Proportionally – in relation to their size and share in the population – the percentage is much, much smaller than the hundreds of French or British Muslims who have joined Islamic State.

In this sense, this low and insignificant figure of Israeli recruits is reminiscent of precedents of the last five decades, when members of the Arab community joined other Islamist or terrorist organizations. Very few Israelis joined the PLO when it was considered in the eye of the Israel law as a terrorist organization, and even fewer went over to be part of Hamas’s ranks.

The same can be said of the dozens of Israelis who over the last two decades agreed to work for the Lebanese Shi’ite organization Hezbollah in various capacities as spies, weapons and explosive smugglers, or general helpers.

The few dozen who have so far joined Islamic State have surprised not only the Shin Bet but also the political leadership of the Israeli Arab communities. Arab MKs are no less worried than the Israeli security services. The Islamic Movement in Israel, considered to be the most radical religious-political in the Arab community, very much opposes the phenomenon.

All in all, and despite their feeling of alienation and of being marginalized and disfranchised from the Jewish state, along with a certain sense of discontentment, the majority of Israeli Arabs are loyal citizens, who want to live their lives as normal and as free and unconnected to terrorism as their Jewish neighbors.

Yossi Melman is an Israeli journalist and writer who specializes in security and intelligence affairs.  He is co-author of "Spies Against Armageddon: inside Israel's Secret Wars. 
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