ISIS in Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Very few Israeli Arabs or Palestinians have joined the Islamic State, which poses no immediate threat to Israel despite the fighting on the other side of the Golan.

ISIS member addresses Israelis in group's first Hebrew-language video. October 23, 2015.
ISIS member addresses Israelis in group's first Hebrew-language video. October 23, 2015. Screen grab

Although the Islamic State does not control any territories close to Israel, it looms large in Jerusalem’s vision of the ultimate Islamist threat.

Support for ISIS is limited among Arabs in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. Very few Israeli Arabs or East Jerusalem residents have joined the Islamic State – certainly no more than 40 – although these cases have been high-profile.

In October 2015, a 23-year-old man from the Israeli town of Jaljulya paraglided over the Golan Heights into Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to strip the young man of his citizenship. The following month, five other residents of Jaljulya were charged for attempting to join ISIS.

Some Israeli Arab fighters have died in Syria – including a 19-year-old from East Jerusalem who was executed as a spy. A dozen or so returned to Israel, at which time they were were arrested.

Also, a handful of Israeli Arabs have been arrested for trying to spread Islamic State ideology. These have included Bedouin – in July 2015, the police and Shin Bet security service arrested six residents of the Negev village Hura, including four teachers, for allegedly setting up a pro-ISIS cell.

Israeli officials have played down the trend of Israeli Arabs joining the Islamic State.

Six Negev Bedouin arrested for pro-ISIS activity.

“This doesn’t characterize the entire population of Arab Israelis,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon has said. “This is something they’ll regret having done when they’re older.”

Support for the Islamic State among Israeli Arabs appears limited. According to a poll released in February 2015, 86 percent of Israeli Arabs said they believed ISIS was harming Islam's image (and 30 percent of Israeli Jews believed Israeli Arabs supported the militant group).

In general, despite the fighting near the Golan Heights, Israel has striven to avoid being drawn into the Syrian civil war. It has made targeted ad hoc strikes in Syria, believed to be intended to stop shipments of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Stray missiles have fallen on the Israeli side of the Golan.

The Israel Defense Forces has quickly responded to such incidents, making clear that it holds “the Syrian military responsible for all events stemming from its territory and will not tolerate any attempt to harm Israel's sovereignty and the safety of its residents.”

Islamic State fighters have reportedly come close to the Golan, but the closest fighting is dominated by other rebel groups.

In Quneitra province, just on the other side of the de facto border, militias battle for control. These include Damascus-affiliated groups, the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army and the ISIS-allied Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.

At the opposite end of Israel, ISIS-affiliated Wilayat Sinai has taken responsibility for rocket fire into Israel.

Jerusalem was alarmed by Wilayat Sinai’s massive and well-coordinated attacks on the Egyptian military in Sinai in the summer of 2015, but there is nothing to indicate that Israel faces a similar threat.

For its part, the Islamic State clearly seeks to recruit more Palestinian jihadis. In July 2015, an ISIS video starred half a dozen Palestinian recruits fighting in Syria who called for their countrymen to pledge allegiance to the caliphate and spread the fight back home.

The Islamic State also released propaganda films supporting the wave of knife attacks against Israelis in the autumn of 2015 and urging Palestinians to step up their assaults.

But the numbers remain small. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is also intent on combating any ISIS-related activity and has ongoing security and intelligence cooperation with Israel.

In January 2015 the IDF arrested three men from Hebron it said were linked to the Islamic State and had been planning terror attacks.

Meanwhile, the Hamas regime in Gaza has long battled Salafists who pose a direct threat to their rule. At least one group, veteran jihadis Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), has pledged allegiance to the caliphate, and Islamic State sympathizers have carried out attacks inside the Gaza Strip including car bombings in July.

Haaretz

Although ISIS does not pose much of a threat to Israel, the mood has sometimes been alarmist. In a skit in a 2015 election video for Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, Islamic militants flying the ISIS flag stormed through Israel and asked a passerby for directions to Jerusalem, which he helpfully provided. The implication: This is what would happen if a left-wing government were elected. 

A screenshot of Netanyahu's campaign ad, February 14, 2014.

Politicians on the right have repeatedly claimed that any peace deal with Syria would have brought the Islamic State right up to Israel’s border. They argue that exchanging land for peace in the West Bank would create a further opportunity for ISIS to set up a statelet on Israel's doorstep.

There is little prospect of Israel formally joining any international efforts against the Islamic State. Washington certainly has no intention of inviting Jerusalem to take part. Any overt Israeli involvement would alienate Arab states involved in such efforts and destabilize any coalition.

Still, in September 2014, opposition leader Isaac Herzog attacked the government for failing to create the conditions under which Israel could take part in the fightback.

“It is Netanyahu who has excluded Israel from the anti-ISIS coalition by failing to seriously negotiate with the Palestinians,” he said.