ISIS Adherents Kill Israelis Twice in a Week, and the Arab Community Wonders Why

ISIS says the second attack wasn't a copycat operation. Either way, extremist messages on social media amid insufficient counterefforts at schools are considered partly to blame

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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A police station in Umm al-Fahm on Sunday.
A police station in Umm al-Fahm on Sunday. Credit: Fadi Amun
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

A., a resident of the northern Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, stayed home Monday, the day after the shooting in nearby Hadera that killed two members of the Border Police. The attack and the fact that the two gunmen were Umm al-Fahm residents linked to the Islamic State reminded him of a time he'd rather forget.

In 2014, A. returned from several months in Syria and was convicted of membership in the Islamic State. He was released from prison in 2016 and aimed to start a new life.

With two shocking attacks, ISIS rears its head in Israel. LISTEN

“I’m not there and not at all connected to those people now,” he said. "I’m married and work for a living, and that’s it.”

But he still carries the stigma of membership in ISIS. Every time he travels abroad he faces a long interrogation at the airport.

“I got married during the pandemic and flew to Antalya,” he said, referring to the Turkish resort town. “I had just landed there and the Turks considered me a threat.” They put him in a closed area with his new wife for two days and sent them back.

“For a long time even opening a bank account was no simple task,” he said. “They refused me and considered me somebody who finances terrorism. It’s a very tough situation, so today I prefer to keep a very low profile. I leave home for work and go back. That’s it.”

A. isn't the only young Arab Israeli man over the past decade who has joined the Islamic State or considered doing so. This also goes for other Islamist groups that have fought in Syria since the civil war broke out in 2011.

But the attacks in the past week in Hadera and Be’er Sheva have prompted the question "why now?" And were Sunday's shootings a copycat attack, or were these sleeper cells ordered to act?

According to a senior police official, probably a few dozen Arab Israelis identify with the Islamic State; a "second-tier" group might number a few hundred.

A 19-year-old from Nazareth who joined the Islamic State in 2015.Credit: Gil Eliahu

At the peak, 87 prisoners in Israel had been convicted of membership in the Islamic State or acting on its behalf. Currently 19 prisoners are considered ISIS prisoners, some of them West Bank Palestinians, not Israeli citizens.

Most of the young Israelis who have fought with the Islamic State went to Syria via Turkey. Some either disappeared or were killed there, while others returned to Israel and faced criminal charges.

M.G., a 19-year-old resident of the north, has recently finished a stint in prison for supporting the Islamic State. He was arrested when he was still a minor, and a relative says he hadn’t led a religious life.

After his parents divorced, he became a loner and read up on Islamic State ideology on social media. A family member says a man who identified himself as an ISIS operative asked M.G. to send him a copy of his passport. M.G. complied and was arrested a few hours later.

“We don’t know who that operative is. It could actually be an [Israeli] intelligence agent,” the relative said. “But that’s what happened. It just shows that this doesn’t involve sophisticated people, and sometimes it’s somebody who exploits them and drags them into this.” Since his release from prison, M.G. has felt ostracized, relatives say.

Unlike other security prisoners, Islamic State members don’t receive legal advice from rights groups or legal aid organizations, let alone from the Palestinian agency responsible for security prisoners. If you're accused of ISIS membership, you have to fend for yourself or find a lawyer.

“It’s not flattering and doesn’t benefit anyone to represent people with such an ideology,” said one lawyer who requested anonymity. “But you have to remember that some of these people were dragged into it innocently or through ignorance.”

The vast majority of them, he added, go home without any support system after prison.

“Some have a hard time rehabilitating themselves because in many cases they feel ostracized,” he said. “Such a thing could put them back on the same path.”

The scene of the car-ramming and stabbing attack in Be'er Sheva last week. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Mohammad Bashir, a lawyer and former mayor of the northern town of Sakhnin, is a member of the Hadash party, one of three in the Joint List of Arab parties. A few years ago he found himself mired in controversy when his son and four other Sakhnin residents were arrested and accused of membership in the Islamic State.

The five were sentenced to prison terms between two and a half and six years. Most have been released.

“My son is now running a successful private company, but there are others who haven't found themselves,” Bashir said.

On Sunday, the Islamic State took the unusual step of claiming responsibility for the two attacks. In a statement, the organization said the assailants had dedicated their lives to ISIS and realized they wouldn't come out of their mission alive.

The group offered the sleeper-cell theory: These were well-trained fighters tapped to assimilate into Israeli society and strike from within.

In the Bedouin community of Hura in the south – home to the assailant in Be’er Sheva – and in Umm al-Fahm, people aren't impressed by the Islamic State's description.

“It’s hard to point to an immediate motive. It could be a personal reason and frustration, or someone directed them to go into action,” said a security official who worked in the Arab community in recent years.

He said it was up to the Shin Bet security service and the police to figure out the motives.

The decision to join the Islamic State is always influenced by recruiters from other countries, mainly on social media, the official said.

Mohammed Bashir, whose son has done prison time for joining the Islamic State.Credit: Rami Shllush

“So it's less related to sermons in mosques or elsewhere, or to similar people in the Arab community,” he said. “They were influenced by what they were exposed to on the [social] networks and mainly by the harsh scenes broadcast at the time from Syria.”

Mohammed Salameh, a preacher and expert on sharia law, said many young people are torn among various identities.

“On the one hand, there’s a Muslim/Palestinian-Arab identity that identifies with the Arab, the Palestinian and the Islamic sphere. In the era of social media, they’re exposed to a lot of content, and some of it promotes very extreme movements such as ISIS,” he said.

“On the other, we want to show respect for being Israeli citizens. The vast majority of the Arab community maintains this balance, but for a few the line is blurred, and they start to believe in very extreme views. When you add the weapons and stories of heroism, it’s very easy for them to go astray.”

According to Salameh, at the height of the Syrian civil war, he and his colleagues spoke about the issue at mosques and warned of the consequences, but in recent years the subject hasn't been on the agenda, so the events of recent days have come largely as a surprise.

In Umm al-Fahm, residents say the Islamic State's stronger standing is linked to the government’s battle with the northern wing of Israel’s Islamic Movement, which was outlawed in 2015.

“The movement led by Sheikh Raed Salah expressed a clear stance against ISIS and was even a pioneer in the Arab world against the organization,” said a former activist in the Islamic Movement.

A number of young people enchanted by ISIS ideology have also been influenced by members of the Islamic Movement at mosques, including by sermons, the former activist said. As a result, some never joined the Islamic State.

“Now, lacking such a framework, those young people can go there without anyone stopping them,” the former activist said.

National police chief Kobi Shabtai and other police in Hadera after Sunday's attack. Credit: Rami Shllush

Another explanation is provided by Ayman Agbaria of the University of Haifa and the Mandel School for Educational Leadership. He says teachers of Islam are trained more as preachers than educators, which provides fertile ground for radicalization. Curricula avoid the political-theological aspects of Islam and focus on texts and religious obligations, while students are also prevented from engaging in critical discussion.

“On the one hand, young people are exposed through the media and social networks to the marketplace of ideas and perspectives on what's the correct religion, who is a proper Muslim and how Islam can be fulfilled in the life of the individual and society. On the other, the education system isn't helping the children to wisely and critically consider these ideas,” Agbaria said.

“This doesn’t help them develop a humanist perspective on the deep questions and dilemmas of modern life and the realities of poverty, violence and racism they find themselves in. From here the path to embracing fundamentalist ideas is very short.”

Josh Breiner contributed to this report.

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