Officers serving on the Golan Heights are still stumped how, late on Saturday afternoon, a 23-year-old man managed to avoid the many military outposts and lookouts overlooking the border with Syria, assemble a glider with a small engine, and fly across the Raqqad river valley, landing near the Syrian village of Jamla. It was no amateur jaunt. The flier chose a moment when the direction of the wind, usually north-easterly, changed in his favor. There was just enough light to guide him toward his destination and allow the surveillance cameras to detect him only when in mid-air. The two IDF female soldiers watching the screens scrambled helicopters and special forces, but it was much too late.
For long hours into the night, as aircraft crossed the border searching for the group of men who were seen surrounding the young man as soon as he landed, the army feared he was a recreational flier who had been swept over the border by the wind and captured by Islamist rebels. But local operators of glider flights said they hadn't rented equipment to anyone. There were rumors he was a Swiss tourist, but on Sunday morning it emerged he was an Israeli-Arab citizen, a resident of the town of Jaljulya next to Kfar Sava, a 20-minute drive from Tel Aviv.
The assumption now is that the short flight across the valley was planned and he was met by a group of rebels who were prepared for his arrival. “They were obviously there waiting for him,” said one officer who was involved in the search efforts. “It looked like a well-planned operation.”
There are number of rebel groups active in that sector, including Shuhada al-Yarmuch (Yarmuch martyrs) who have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State’s caliphate, though ISIS itself is still 100 kilometers away. None of these groups have admitted that they are holding the Israeli. The kibbutzniks from Meitzar, which overlooks the valley over which he flew, say ironically “we enjoyed the fireworks show on Saturday night. This guy knew what he was doing, negotiating the winds like that and choosing the right spot to take off from.”
As thunderstorms broke over the Golan this week and the Syrian side of the Raqqad valley disappeared behind clouds, the man who flew over sounded like a hardened veteran.
Back in his hometown, two hours drive away, no-one who know him recognizes this image. His name is still under a gag order, but some members of his family are happy to be interviewed and express their disbelief. Their descriptions of him range from “majnoon” (crazy in Arabic) to nave and “a nice kid who just doesn’t think very much.” He was in special education, though the reasons the relatives offer for his not attending a regular school vary. He didn’t lack for money after graduation though, as he worked in the family business as a contractor for building sports fields, mainly in neighboring Jewish local authorities. He bought a new motorcycle last year and his mother was petrified after he smashed it at high speed on Route 6. And he loved tinkering around with engines and working out at the gym. But a glider? And ISIS?
The family is religious. His uncle Rifat, who performed the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, proudly displays a picture of the Kaaba on his front door. But he insists they are aligned with the moderate southern wing of the Israeli Islamic Movement. “He loved sport and extreme challenges and went a bit crazy with motorbikes. But all of our family are bit like that – I go diving. We never knew he went gliding and besides, he would never go off like that without telling his mother.”
There is a defensiveness in Jaljulya over links between the town’s young men and ISIS. Two others are known to have travelled to Syria and joined the Islamic State. One has since returned and been arrested.
“Only three,” says a local businessman. “If we had been such extremists wouldn’t it have been dozens every year? Most of the kids here see those ISIS videos and are disgusted. Burning a man alive isn’t Islam.”
But sandwiched between the suburbs of Kfar Sava, Jaljulya, whose 9,000 residents still call it a village, is the kind of place you can understand a 23-year-old with a love for motorbikes and flying wanting to escape. Families still prefer to live in private houses they build themselves, which makes its winding streets cramped warrens. Officially, the average wage here is only 60 percent of the Israeli average, though many work in the “black economy” as the number of new cars and jeeps attest to. Relations with the Jewish neighbors are usually good, nearly all the shops rely on their custom and all the signs are in Hebrew. Last week, when an Israel Defense Forces soldier from a nearby Jewish village was murdered in a stabbing attack, a group of local leaders paid his family a condolence visit.
“When the police come here, nearly every day, it’s almost always because of drugs and theft. There was a raid in the next street this morning,” says Rifat, the uncle.
He estimates that about 70 percent of the young men in Jaljulya have some affiliation with local crime gangs. “We try to keep the young people on the straight and narrow, but it is difficult with Facebook and the Internet taking over their lives.”
His son Hali dutifully says that he has blocked all ISIS-related videos on his own computer and mobile phone, but his sly smile says otherwise.
Fewer than 50 Arab-Israeli citizens are known to have travelled to Syria to join ISIS or tried to organize local cells. They don’t confirm a particular profile. Some were well-educated, including doctors, and had children of their own. Others seem to be adventure-seeking misfits, a bit like the flier from Jaljulya. Most have travelled via Turkey, a route much cheaper and easier than buying a motorized glider and flying across the Golan. Which just adds to the disbelief of many in the town that he actually did it. “It just seems like too big a task for that kid,” sighs Rifat.
ISIS posted online last week its first video in Hebrew, threatening that “not a single Jew will remain in Jerusalem and Palestine.” Israel’s Arab community doesn’t seem to be impressed by the Islamic State though.
“ISIS simply isn’t high on our threat assessment,” says a senior IDF officer. “The numbers for now aren’t particularly worrying. But that could change in the future.”
Forty-something volunteers out of 1.7 million is a tiny proportion, especially when compared with the proportions of European Muslims who have joined. And unlike a young Islamist from Britain or France, for would-be Israeli Jihadists, joining the rebels in Syria is just a quick hop across the valley.
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