Israeli Citizens Fighting for Islamic State: A Small, Yet Worrying Trend

While their families shun exposure, the phenomenon has sparked debate throughout Arab society in Israel.

David Bachar

For six months Yakoub Nasrallah and his wife Nahla have been sitting helplessly in their house on the outskirts of the Israeli Arab town of Kalansua. Their eldest son, 19-year-old Yussef, left home suddenly one day, without prior notice. He crossed the border to Jordan and from there to Syria. His purpose was to join groups fighting the Assad regime, including Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Whereas some Israeli citizens have blended into these organizations, a few of them dying in battles in Syria, Nasrallah, according to information his family has, is alive and being held by Assad’s security forces. Beyond that his parents have no information on his condition or what awaits him.

Nasrallah’s story is one of dozens of Israeli Arabs who left for Syria in order to fight its government, usually joining extreme Islamist groups. The current prominent group is Islamic State, the rising star in the sights of global media, a target of Western nations led by the United States and Arab regimes in the region.

Most of the families whose sons have joined the murderous organization wish to remain anonymous and avoid exposure. “Leave us alone,” “we don’t want to get in trouble,” “we’re surprised and shocked, and have nothing further to add,” – these words repeat themselves in conversations with families of these recruits. They come from Nazareth to the Bedouin village of Hura, from villages and towns in the Galilee and the center of the country. The only common denominator among most of them seems to be the religious lifestyle they were leading. They are mainly single, but not exclusively. Some are academics whose financial situation does not seem to have been a factor in their decision.

Despite their families’ wishes to be left alone and their fears of exposure, Israeli Arabs have been increasingly concerned by this phenomenon, which has raised many questions such as their motives, the implications of their deeds, how Arab society became fertile ground for such moves and who should take responsibility. Such discussions take place not only in academic circles and among public officials – they also occur in living rooms and restaurants.

The debate has intensified over the past few weeks following the death of Ahmed Habashi from the village of Iksal, who was killed in Iraq while fighting with IS, and the departure of three other young men from Yafia, who recently left for Turkey and apparently continued to Syria.

Some families said that pictures repeatedly shown in the media of dead children and bodies and destruction had great impact on these young men. Sociologist Dr. Nihad Ali from the University of Haifa says that the opposition to the Assad regime by the Muslim Brotherhood and the local Islamic Movement contributed to this indirect mobilization of young men. Some of them were easy prey for mobilization while studying abroad. Some of these men did not yet have a fully formed identity and saw their joining these organizations as a battle for Islam meant to save not just Syria but the entire world.

An educator from the Wadi Ara area, who describes himself as a traditional Muslim who attends mosque services every Friday, says that sometimes words heard in the mosque are enough to catch the attention of hot-headed youths. If the sermon calls on God to support the fighters against the Syrian regime, some young person can carry this to extremes.

In the era of Facebook and social networks everything is possible, and some see it as a manly act of courage or a holy battle or macho act. This is true not only of Israeli Arabs but also those living in Europe. They see themselves as part of the world and internalize what they hear in sermons and lectures.

The Nasrallah family says that Yussef started leading a more religious life and became stronger in his beliefs after losing a close friend to illness. They weren’t aware of any influence that could have led him to take such a step, and he usually seemed fully aware of what he was doing. “We call on anyone who can help us to bring him back, we have nothing to look for in Syria – our sons have to live here,” says his mother, Nahla.

On April 18 this year he left with friends for a trip to Lake Kinneret, taking his passport, 3,000 shekels and some personal items. “He then parted from his friends, telling them he was going to Jordan,” says his father. “We didn’t know he was going there. He crossed via the Sheikh Hussein crossing.”

The family went to Amman to try and find him. “I met a Jordanian intelligence officer who believed Yussef was already in Syria. I asked how he could cross with an Israeli passport, but it turned out that local taxi drivers will do it for 10-15 Jordanian Dinars ($14-$21).”

His parents believe that he never made it to these organizations and was arrested soon after crossing the border, but they have no proof of this. In recent days the father appealed to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, asking him to intervene on his son’s behalf.

“In Israel I have no one to turn to. I turned to Abu Mazen [Abbas] and to some Israeli Arab Knesset members. Maybe they can help.”

As the Nasrallah family wait for a sign of life from their son, the family of Ahmed Shurbaji from Umm al-Fahm are waiting to hear their son’s verdict. Shurbaji left for Syria in January and stayed for three months. He reconsidered and came back, but was arrested at Ben-Gurion Airport and convicted in the Haifa District Court of leaving for an enemy state and undergoing weapons training. According to the prosecution, he received military training that included operating light arms and heavy machine guns, grenades and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

The Shin Bet security service said after Shourbaji’s arrest that he had participated in at least two battles against Assad’s forces, and several missions across Syria with the “Global Jihad” group.

A relative who knows Shurbaji well told Haaretz this week that his joining IS surprised everyone by its timing, not its ideological background. “He was very religious, praying all the time. A few days before he left he told his family that he wanted to remain in the mosque, and then he left for Turkey,” he said.

His family knows that he went to Istanbul, where he stayed for a few days in a hotel. He then went to the Syrian border, and a few weeks later notified his father that he was in Syria. His relative said that he wanted to join a group called “The Army of Mohammed” but ended up with IS. His family doesn’t know if this was his idea or whether he was pressured into it. They know that he was asked to burn his Israeli passport and any other means of identification.

Shurbaji stated during his interrogation that he was concerned that he would be captured by Hezbollah fighters who would accuse him of being an Israeli spy. After three months he decided to return. He was smuggled into Turkey and contacted his father, who got him a new passport.

During court proceedings regarding his sentencing, his lawyer Khasin Abu Khasin said that Shurbaji had contacted a security official to help him return and that Israel and the West were quietly encouraging these men to go to Syria, since they could easily have stopped him. He was questioned by the Shin Bet before he left, and they knew his intentions after following him on social networks.

Abu Khasin says that IS has become popular in Israel and around the world due to the extensive media coverage. In many countries it is labeled a terror organization, but not in Israel, where it was only recently outlawed.

Shurbaji will be sentenced in November. The prosecution has asked for two-four years in prison, but his lawyer asked to consider time served since his arrest last April. The lawyer noted that there were two other similar cases in which no legal action was taken.

A senior military intelligence officer who follows events in Arab society told Haaretz that “the phenomenon of Israeli Arabs joining organizations such as IS is troubling. However, it’s not widespread and does not have public support – families don’t talk about it. The numbers are small, which may explain why some cases are not prosecuted, especially since it was not proclaimed an illegal organization until recently. We are following the process but it’s not a major issue.”

The Shin Bet website proclaims that the phenomenon poses great danger, since the Syrian arena is full of hostile elements, such as global jihadist groups: People joining them undergo military training and are exposed to extreme ideologies, and this could be utilized by terror groups to obtain information or to carry out terror attacks.