600-percent Increase in Number of Arabs Jailed in Israel for ISIS or Al-Qaida Activity in 2016

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Two Nazareth residents accused of supporting the Islamic State group, in a Nazareth court in March 2016.
Two Nazareth residents accused of supporting the Islamic State group, in a Nazareth court in March 2016.Credit: Rami Shllush

The number of Arabs jailed in Israel for activity inspired by radical jihadist movements soared by almost 600 percent over the last year. Eighty-three people have been detained, up from just 12 at the end of 2015.

The detainees, who include both Israeli citizens and Palestinians, have been influenced mainly by either the Islamic State group or Al-Qaida.

Over the past three months, the Shin Bet security service has announced a long list of arrests of those suspected of jihadist activity. They include three residents of Taibeh, arrested last September on suspicion of activity inspired by Islamic State (two also allegedly planned to join the organization’s ranks in Syria); a couple from the Galilee town of Sakhnin, arrested that same month after returning from Iraq where they had joined Islamic State; a resident of Jaljulya who was arrested last November for expressing support for Islamic State, buying a submachine gun and a pistol, and planning to go to Syria; and a Taibeh resident arrested last month for swearing allegiance to Islamic State, learning how to make bombs and, according to the Shin Bet, planning to blow up a bus in Tel Aviv.

The majority of those arrested, including all the examples above, are Israeli Arabs rather than Palestinians from the West Bank. In most cases, they were arrested either because they were in internet contact with Islamic State activists overseas, or because they were planning terror attacks.

Others were arrested when they tried to go to Iraq or Syria to fight with Islamic State and, in a few cases, people were arrested upon returning from those countries.

Since the summer of 2014, when Islamic State recorded its first major battlefield successes in Iraq and Syria, it has been gaining adherents at Al-Qaida’s expense.

Nevertheless, Israeli defense officials say that very few of those detained in Israel are genuine Islamic State operatives. Most simply identify with Islam’s Salafi jihadist movement, which advocates violence and draws inspiration from Islamic State, but have no real connection with ISIS' leadership in Iraq and Syria and do not receive direct orders from it.

One of the relatively few Palestinian attacks suspected of being committed under the influence of Islamic State took place on January 8, when Fadi al-Qanbar killed four army officers in a truck-ramming attack in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood. Qanbar was a resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabal Mukkaber.

Even though Salafi organizations have so far had little success in carrying out attacks in Israel, several senior army officers said recently that their ability to cause Israel harm is growing. In particular, they voiced concern that these organizations could spark an escalation along the Gaza border, in Sinai or, to a lesser extent, in the Golan Heights.

In the Gaza Strip, Salafi organizations have been responsible for sporadic rocket fire at Israel every month or two. Generally, this is done to embarrass Gaza’s Hamas government, which has been arresting and torturing Salafists, and to try to embroil it in a conflict with Israel.

Since the start of the month, Islamic State’s affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula, Wilayat Sinai, has also fired Katyusha rockets at Israel – one barrage aimed at Eilat, another at the Western Negev.

Army officers said they believe this rocket fire had two goals: to hurt Israel because of the assistance it's giving Egypt’s security services in their battle against Wilayat Sinai; and to disrupt a growing rapprochement between Hamas and Egypt’s government.

In the Syrian part of the Golan, east of the Israeli border, an Islamic State affiliate known as the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade seized control of a few more villages from other Syrian rebel groups last week. The Assad regime’s forces weren’t involved in that fighting.

Last November, in an unusual incident, an Islamic State cell opened fire at Israeli soldiers on the Golan. The soldiers were unhurt, but Israel responded with an aerial assault on an ISIS position near the border, which killed several of the group’s operatives.

Since then, there have been no further clashes with Islamic State on the Syrian border, and army officers believe the attack was merely the private initiative of a junior officer. For now, they said, ISIS' main goal on this front seems to be capturing more of the southern Golan from other rebel groups.

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