Israel Sees Rise in Support for ISIS Among Bedouin

Days after ISIS issues statement warning Israel, Shin Bet voices concerns at growing influence of group's propaganda on Negev Bedouin, Israeli Arabs.

The family home of Muhannad al-Okbi, Hura, Oct. 19, 2015.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israeli defense establishment is worried by the growing number of Arab citizens, especially Negev Bedouin, who are involved with Islamic State.

Over the weekend, in an audio tape purporting to be a statement by ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the organization threatened to perpetrate attacks against “the Jews in Palestine.”

ISIS has branches on two of Israel’s borders – in Syria (in a small section of the southern Golan Heights) and Egypt (in much of the Sinai peninsula). The defense establishment is worried by the possibility that the organization will try to activate cells of Israeli Arabs to commit attacks.

Last week, the Shin Bet security service announced that it had uncovered a large Hamas cell in East Jerusalem that was planning suicide bombings inside Israel. The 25 people arrested included both Israeli Arabs and West Bank residents. One of them was Fadi Abu Kian, a 19-year-old Bedouin from the Negev town of Hura, who said he had agreed to smuggle an explosive belt or a booby-trapped car into Israel from the West Bank.

The Shin Bet said that in addition to his activity in Hamas, Abu Kian told investigators he supports ISIS and was active in various radical Islamist organizations in Hura.

Two months ago, another Hura resident, Muhannad al-Okbi, carried out a shooting attack in Be’er Sheva’s central bus station in which an Israeli soldier was killed.

Israelis participating in attacks

That two Israeli citizens were willing to carry out attacks themselves was fairly unusual. During the second intifada, most of the Israeli Arabs convicted of involvement in terror were found to have abetted terrorists, mainly by driving them to their targets, rather than committing attacks themselves.

Alongside other incidents uncovered in recent months, these two cases indicate a rise in the direct involvement of Israeli Arabs in terror. The defense establishment attributes this partly to ISIS’ propaganda, especially via the Internet.

Over the past year, two other Hura residents were found to have ties to ISIS. Othman Abu Kian, a medical resident who worked at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center, traveled to Syria about a year ago to fight for ISIS and was killed in battle. In July, four teachers from Hura – also members of the Abu Kian clan – were arrested on suspicion of disseminating ISIS propaganda.

Israeli Arabs from the north have also been arrested on suspicion of involvement with ISIS in recent months. In October and November, five Nazareth residents were arrested on suspicion of undergoing weapons training in preparation for carrying out attacks inspired by ISIS.

In November a cell affiliated with ISIS was uncovered in Jaljulya after one member went to Syria to join the ISIS branch on the Syrian Golan Heights.

And last week, two residents of villages near Nazareth were arrested for being in contact with ISIS. They had gone to Turkey in May to join the group’s fighters in Syria, but changed their minds at the last minute.

Nevertheless, the defense establishment is still having trouble obtaining high-quality evidence against people suspected of activity on ISIS’s behalf.

Most are arrested at a relatively early stage, as soon as the first intelligence is received, to prevent them from carrying out attacks that could inspire more Israeli Arabs to join the organization. But that means the evidence against them is very limited, so the courts tend to impose relatively short sentences.

Israel declared ISIS an illegal organization in September 2014. This past October, it declared the group a terrorist organization.