The Islamic State and Israel’s Arab Citizens


In contrast to the large number of combatants who flocked from all over the world to fight in Syria and Iraq, Israeli Arab jihadists represent a mere epiphenomenon. Since 2011, between 50 and 100 Arab citizens joined rebel groups in Syria and Iraq. This is out of 1.7 million people that represents nearly 20 percent of the Israeli population. At least half of them are believed to have joined ISIL, while the rest joined Jabhat Fatah al Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra) and some other Islamist groups. But for Israel, even this small cohort of jihadists remains a source of concern.

Feelings of marginalization among Israel’s Arab citizens have always been significant. Members of this minority have regularly expressed their grievances against the Israeli State during demonstrations, protests, strikes, and acts of solidarity with their Palestinian counterparts. Over the last ten years, Salafism has gained a better foothold in the Israeli Arab community. Although most Salafis are nonviolent, they are not necessarily welcomed by the population which perceives them as disrupting local customs. Salafis also must compete with the Islamic movement, in particular the northern branch headed by Sheikh Ra’ed Salah. In focusing his action on welfare activities and protests to defend the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem he gained strong popular support. Israel outlawed this movement in November 2015 and sentenced its leader to 11 months in jail for incitement to violence.  However, the nascent Salafist movement has only managed to inspire a few radicals, such as Sheikh Nazim Abu Salim, who founded in 2010 a jihadi Salafist group allegedly associated with Al Qaeda called Jama’at Ansar Allah-Bayt al Maqdis-al Nasira (Nazareth Supporters of the Holy House/Jerusalem). The Nazareth Magistrate’s Court convicted him on charges of incitement to violence and terrorism.

So far, radical and violent Islamism has not been considered a suitable mode of action by Israeli Arabs. But the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the worldwide success of ISIL might be a turning point. Recruitment of Israeli Arab jihadists reached a dramatic peak in 2015 with the establishment of the so-called Islamic Caliphate in areas straddling Syria and Iraq in June 2014. In a spectacular manner, one 23-year-old from Jaljuliya used a hang glider over the Golan Heights to cross the Israel-Syria border in October 2015. He supposedly joined the ISIL affiliate Liwa Shuhada al Yarmouk in southwest Deraa.

About ten Israeli Arabs have already died in the Syrian civil war. Others tried to return to Israel and were arrested in accordance with a 2014 law that declared any activity connected to the Islamic State to be illegal. On September 22, for the first time, an entire family from Sakhnin was arrested at Ben Gurion Airport on their way back from Turkey after spending over a year with the Islamic State. The family had joined ISIL by making contact via Facebook with an Israeli Arab from Umm el Fahm who joined ISIL in 2013. With his support, they traveled to Turkey after a family trip in Romania and then to Raqqa in Syria. The husband was sent to Iraq, where he took part in military operations. After being injured, he was sent to Mosul in Iraq, where his family would eventually join him. According to their testimonies, the tough living conditions forced the Zbeidat family in June 2016 to move from Iraq to Syria and then to return to Israel. They attempted several times to cross the Turkish border with the assistance of smugglers. After successfully entering Turkey, the family was arrested, at which point they asked to be sent back to Israel.

Nearly 50 Israeli Arabs have also been arrested as they were suspected of preparing attacks or en route to Syria by the Israeli, Turkish, and Jordanian authorities. In August 2015, Iman Khanjo (a 44-year-old mother of five and PhD candidate in Islamic studies in Shefar’am) was arrested in Turkey when she attempted to cross the Syrian border by herself. Khanjo had been posting propaganda materials in support of ISIL on the internet before being contacted by an ISIL operative, presumably an Israeli Arab citizen, Abu Ali al Shami, who assisted her in her attempt to enter Syria. She was sentenced to 22 months in prison in July 2016.In late 2014, seven men were apprehended for swearing allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State and plotting to carry out assaults in Israel. One central figure was Karim Abu Saleh from Sakhnin, who was arrested at Ben Gurion Airport before attempting to go to Turkey. He was sentenced to six years in prison in September 2016. The head of this Galilee cell was identified as Adnan Ala al Din, a 40-year-old lawyer from Nazareth who preached Islamist ideology and advocated in favor of attacks against Israeli civilians. In July 2015, indictments were submitted against six Israeli Arab Bedouins, including four teachers working in Rahat and Hura who were involved in distributing Islamic State propaganda in schools.

Many of these volunteers or sympathizers of ISIL are single men aged between 18 and 30. They come from different social and educational backgrounds and originate from different places, such as Hura in the Negev, Umm el Fahm, Taybeh, Jaljulya in the central Triangle, or Kufr Yassif, Yafia, and Nazareth in Galilee. There is no standard profile. The arrest of an entire family in late September complicates the sociology of the “typical jihadist” and confirms the diversified phenomenon spawned by the Islamic State and other jihadisr groups.

Israel’s Arab political leader are quite uncomfortable with this issue. They all expressed their opposition to the Islamic State, including Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, who condemned the organization during his speech at the movement’s 19th annual summit in Umm el Fahm in September 2014. At the same time, he added that the international coalition against ISIL is “a coalition of evil aimed at destroying what’s left of Syria and Iraq, and further partition the Arab and Islamic world.” Arab Israeli leaders have rarely given their opinion on the wars in Syria and Iraq, which continue to divide the Arab public opinion, including that of Palestinians. Furthermore, most leaders consider the radicalization of Israeli Arab citizens to be a result of their alienation by the Israeli policies. MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad), for example, attributed the problem to “living here without a goal and without a strong sense of identity.” Arab lawyers and human right activists do recognize the problem, but they perceive it as marginal and indisputably related to the wider marginalization of the Israeli Arabs and their status of “second-class” citizens. In their view, the phenomenon is definitively anchored in the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Some European countries, in particular France, face internal debates about why people carry out suicide attacks and on the collective responsibility in the engendering of “monsters.” The issue is not discussed in those terms in Israel. First, Israel is intimately familiar with terrorism and asymmetric conflicts. Second, the current daily insecurity in Israel is not linked to jihadism, but rather to individualized Palestinian violence. The stalemate of the Palestinian state remains the core unsolved issue. Jihadism is not yet considered by Israel as a vital and immediate threat. Third, the time for critical debates and soul-searching has passed amid the failure of the Israeli peace camp and the de-legitimization of any critical discourse. Already disqualified when related to the Palestinian issue, there is no place for such criticism when it concerns jihadism. The worldwide burden-sharing of global jihad will undoubtedly undermine any localized understanding of the problem.

After decades of attention given exclusively to conventional Arab armies, and later to Iran and its proxies Hizballah and Hamas, Israel today faces an additional threat: Salafist jihadism. Its intelligence services have had to adapt their modes of action to address this new phenomenon (technological innovations, cyber defense, specialized units on jihadism, improved inter-service communication, etc.). Thanks to remarkable human resources and technological capabilities, the threat in Israel has been so far efficiently monitored and contained. No claimed jihadi attacks have so far been carried out on Israeli territory. There is no structured or armed jihadi cell in Israel, Jerusalem, or the West Bank, where the Shinbet closely monitors potential threats in cooperation with the Palestinian security services. For example, six residents of Shu’fat in East Jerusalem were charged in October 2016 with attempting to join ISIL. They allegedly tried to enter Syria and Egypt, but failed in their plans to carry out attacks, kidnap a soldier, and purchase weapons.

No intelligence service can predict the commitment to action of so-called “lone wolves.” It is actually striking that the Islamic State has not been able to take advantage of the unprecedented wave of individual violence taking place in the context of the “Intifada of the individuals” or the “Stabbing Intifada.” That said, ISIL has tried. In October 2015, two video clips were released in which Islamic State gunmen vowed in Arabic-accented Hebrew to strike Israel. The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, echoed this threat in an audiotape in December 2015. Recently, Islamic media outlets have also increased their rhetoric in support of the wave of Palestinian attacks in an attempt to co-opt and Islamize the Palestinian cause. In 2015 and 2016 two deadly attacks were perpetrated in Tel Aviv by terrorists alleged to have been inspired by ISIL.  On several occasions, the Islamic State has even released menacing statements and threatened to overthrow Hamas in Gaza. However, ISIL has so far failed to reach this objective and does not seem very attractive to Palestinians.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 89 percent of Palestinians (from the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza) view ISIL as a radical group that does not represent true Islam, and 83 percent support the war against it. For them, ISIL is too violent, and above all, its strategy does not fit with their Palestinian nationalist agenda. Similar reservations have been expressed by Israel’s Arab citizens— mostly Palestinians — who do not find in jihadism a suitable way to address their main concerns about the limits of integration in Israel. Furthermore, contrary to its venomous rhetoric and ideology, ISIL still does not consider Israel as a priority target in the Middle East. It does not want to directly confront Israel and does not possess any realistic political agenda in Jerusalem. The Islamic State’s regional affiliates have been too busy fighting in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and perpetrating attacks in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. However, no one can predict the evolution of ISIL affiliates’ local interests and strategies. Some rocket launches and ambushes have come from jihadist groups in the Sinai (Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, now Wilayat Sinai). Additionally, late in November a number of ISIL fighters from the Shuhada al Yarmouk brigade were killed by Israeli airstrikes after fire exchanged in the southern Golan Heights— the first time such direct action occurred.

Even though Israel has been relatively spared by the jihadi threat, two main security concerns remain. First, no one can predict the impact of the current losses of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq or how many more Israeli Arabs might decide to carry out attacks. It is unlikely that Israel can continue to escape from the mushrooming of attacks perpetrated by so-called returned “foreign fighters” or by ISIL-inspired sympathizers. Second, beyond the internal threat, Israeli and Jewish citizens abroad are most vulnerable. In the early 2000s, some attacks against Israelis were carried out by Al-Qaeda affiliates, including in Sinai, but also in Baku, Nouakchott, and Mumbai. More recently, Jewish European citizens were also targeted by jihadists in Paris and Brussels. Consequently, jihadism is definitively part of Israeli’s security concerns and is likely to gain in importance.


Elisabeth Marteu is a political scientist, expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a Consulting Senior Fellow for Middle East Politics at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.