'My son is not a terrorist'

Taiba family says Hichmat Masarwa went to Syria to find brother; rejects claims he was joining global jihad forces.

Masarwah family 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Masarwah family 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
If you ask his family, Hichmat Masarwa did what any brother would do, risking his life to find his little brother Hussein, who had disappeared in one of the most dangerous corners of the earth.
If you ask the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Masarwa slipped into Syria to link up with international jihadi groups, which asked him to take part in a suicide bombing and feed them intelligence on Israeli targets, including the nuclear facility in Dimona, requests he refused.
“This is a lie and a fraud, nothing less,” said Otman Masarwa, Hichmat’s 52-year-old father, sitting in the courtyard of the family’s multi-level house in Taiba, 12 kilometers east of Kfar Saba, on Thursday.
“They made him out to be a terrorist; he is no terrorist,” Otman said, surrounded by his other sons – Hamad, 26; Karam, 25; and Abdallah, 23.
The Masarwa clan is one of the largest in Taiba, numbering by some estimates well over 15,000 people.
According to Hamad, 19- year-old Hussein left home five months ago, telling his family only that he was “traveling.”
They heard from him in November, when Hussein called – from a cellphone that was running on a Turkish cellular network – to say that he had just slipped over the border into a rebel-held section of northern Syria.
Communication with him was spotty over the following weeks, Hamad explained, and finally, after a month and a half, Hussein cut off all contact with his family.
Karam said that he contacted the Israeli Embassy in Ankara and a lawyer in Turkey, asking them to help find his brother, but the efforts proved fruitless.
The family said that Hussein, whose whereabouts they still don't know, never stated any desire to join the fighting in Syria or spoke of the conflict in Syria before he left in November.
Hamad said that his brother Hussein was young and maybe had been brainwashed or influenced by people he met after entering Syria.
Karam said that when no trace of Hussein could be found, Hichmat made the decision that, as the eldest brother, he would go search for him, and told his employers at the Vadash Bakery in Ramat Hasharon that he would be leaving the country during Passover, when the bakery would be closed anyway.
Karam said Hichmat called on March 3, saying he had landed in Istanbul and was making his way to the Syrian border. He then spoke to them again about a week-and-a-half later, saying he had crossed over into Syria. He was there for a week and then made his way back to a Turkish border town, where he waited for a money transfer from his family needed to buy a ticket back to Israel, Karam said.
The breakdown of events is basically the same as the one given by the state, which said Hichmat flew from Israel to Antalya, Turkey, on March 3; crossed into Syria on March 11; and returned to Israel on March 19 by way of Istanbul, and was arrested upon arrival.
Twenty-two days later, Masarwa was in the Lod District Court, charged by Central District prosecutors with contact with a foreign agent, illegal military training and traveling to an enemy state.
According to prosecutors, Hichmat infiltrated Syria from the Turkish border on March 11 “due to his ideological identification and desire to find his brother who also apparently infiltrated the country.”
They said that he underwent training with the rebels, who also tried to recruit him to carry out a terrorist attack against Israeli targets, a request he refused. He then returned to Istanbul six days later, following pressure from his family and due to his inability to find any trace of his brother.
“He was there for a total of seven days, and they make this giant story out of that?” Hamad asked on Wednesday, adding that his brother wouldn’t have been able to give the rebels any security intelligence about Israeli sites.
The family members did not appear to be fundamentalist Muslims, such as the Salafi groups and other extremists fighting in Syria.
None of them had beards or wore skullcaps, though there was a large mural of the Kaba in Mecca on an exterior wall of the house, painted after their mother returned from the haj to the city earlier this year.
All three brothers and their father were in agreement on the reason for the charges against Hichmat: an attempt by the Shin Bet to deter Israeli Arabs from traveling to enemy states where the turmoil of the Arab Spring is raging and where they could be recruited to carry out attacks against Israel.
“This is a chance to scare all of the Arabs in Israel, so that none of them will think to go there,” Otman said.
Hamad agreed, adding that “none of us cared about what’s going on in Syria. We live here; we work here. What do I have to do with Syria?”
In the Shin Bet statement released on Wednesday about Hichmat’s indictment, the agency wrote, “Israeli Arabs who travel to Syria are exposed to radical ideology, and could be exploited for a terror attack in Israel due to their knowledge of targets in the country...This represented a serious national security issue.”
Attorney Hilal Jabar, who is representing Hichmat, said that his client slipped into Syria solely to look for his brother, and shortly after arriving, fell in with a group of rebels who offered to help him in his search if he helped them build a camp. Jaber said his client told him the facility was a sort of refugee camp for Syrians made homeless by the war, and not a military or training facility as state prosecutors claimed. After he had no luck locating his brother, he made his way back toward Istanbul a week after entering Syria, Jabar said.
“If he’d wanted to go and join the jihad in Syria, why did he come back? He would have just stayed there. Why did he ask his family to wire him money so he could fly home from Istanbul if he wanted to be a fighter?” Jabar asked, before accusing the authorities of trying to “set a precedent, so that Israeli Arabs won’t go to Syria to fight there.”
In recent weeks, there have been a number of reports in the Israeli media about Druse on the Golan Heights, who see themselves as Syrian, seeking to enter Syria illegally to join the civil war on behalf of the Assad regime. There is also fear among authorities that Israeli Arabs could travel there to join the rebels, who by now include a large contingent of Islamist fighters as well as al-Qaida members.
Jabar further stated that the charge that his client was visiting an enemy state might not hold weight in court, arguing that the areas he visited were under rebel control, the same rebels who are receiving support from the United States and its allies. He compared the situation to Israeli contractors who traveled to Iraq for business after the fall of Saddam Hussein, including Nabil Razouk, an Arab from east Jerusalem who was kidnapped on April 8, 2004, while working for an American firm in Iraq.
The argument appeared similar to one raised following the arrest of Eric Harroun, a 30-year-old American and former US Army private, who could face at least 30 years in prison for fighting in the Syrian civil war. Harroun admitted to fighting alongside the Nusra front, considered by the US to be part of al- Qaida operations in Iraq.
Harroun’s lawyer Geremy C. Kamens was quoted earlier this month by The New York Times as saying the case is “unique in American law,” and that “never, to my knowledge, has the US government charged a US citizen for fighting with a group aligned with US interests.”
Though the forecast for Hichmat appears bleak at the moment, his family is confident his fortunes will improve in the coming weeks.
“After a few hearings, once they realize they can’t prove these charges, the indictment will shrink and shrink,” Karam Masarwa said.