Despite last month’s arrest of yet another Israeli citizen who traveled to Syria, allegedly to fight alongside jihadists against the Assad regime, the number of Israeli Arabs who have left the country to join the Syrian opposition remains just a fraction of the number of Western European Muslims traveling for the same purpose.
The Shin Bet announced on Sunday that it had arrested 22-year-old Hamza Magazmeh from the Galilee town of Yafia upon his return from Syria in late October, along with two friends.
The internal security agency estimates that some 30 Israelis have joined the fighting in Syria since the eruption of the civil war in the country in March 2011. The vast majority of such travelers come from fundamentalist Salafi backgrounds and are affiliated with jihadist organizations fighting the Assad regime in Syria such as the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, both internationally recognized as terror groups.
Of particular concern to the Shin Bet is the possibility that Arab citizens who have left the country illegally to join jihadist groups in Syria may return to carry out terror attacks in Israel.
The announcement of Magazmeh’s arrest coincided with a revelation by Hans-George Maassen, head of the German domestic intelligence service, that some 550 German nationals have left to fight the Assad regime under the banner of the Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS) since the start of fighting. One hundred and eighty of them have since returned to Germany, he said, while 60 died in battle.
Germany is not alone. According to data collected in December 2013 by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, a London-based research center, Western European fighters account for approximately 18 percent of the total number of foreign fighters present in Syria. Of a total of up to 1,900 jihadi fighters hailing from Western Europe, France leads the list of countries of their origin, followed by Britain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Out of the 30 Israelis who left to fight in Syria, a few have joined the more moderate Free Syrian Army, and at least two traveled there to join Assad’s regime forces. In all, four Israelis have been killed in battle in Syria, the Shin Bet said.
“The departure of Israeli Arabs to the Syrian combat field and their return as experienced combatants with ties to Global Jihad activists is viewed as extremely threatening to state security and potentially advancing terror,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement sent to The Times of Israel this week.
A report recently published by the Shin Bet named a number of young Israeli Arabs who left for Syria and were questioned, and in some cases indicted, upon their return to Israel.
While many other countries have programs designed to keep citizens from becoming radicalized and traveling to Syria, no such Israeli effort was detailed in the Shin Bet report.
Hikmat Masarweh of Taybeh, 30, left for Syria, following in the footsteps of his brother who was killed fighting the Assad regime. At a training camp in Syria, Masarweh was trained in light arms and offered the opportunity to carry out a suicide operation against regime forces. Upon his return home, he admitted to having been thoroughly questioned about Israel, and asked about the IDF and about sensitive installations including the nuclear reactor in Dimona. He was even requested to carry out a suicide operation. In July 2013, an Israeli court sentenced Masarweh to two and a half years in prison and one year’s suspended sentence.
Muayyed Aghbariyeh, 30, from the town of Mushayrifa near Umm al-Fahm, left for Syria in August 2013 with two Umm al-Fahm residents, Saleh Al-Sayyed and Muhammad Mahamid. Rumors emerged during the following month that Aghbariyeh was killed in action, but a jihadist video published in February showed him fighting with the Islamic State near Aleppo.
Israel uses the Defense Regulations, emergency law legislated in 1945 by the British Mandate and incorporated into the Israeli legal code, to prosecute Israeli Arabs returning from the Syrian battlefield. Articles 114 and 143 of Israel’s penal code banning military training abroad and contact with foreign agents are also used to prosecute citizens, after IS and other jihadist groups in Syria were classified “unlawful associations” by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in September.
Those laws were applied against Hussam Hajleh, a 26-year-old man from Jaljuliya, who was sentenced to 19 months in prison on June 26 for unlawfully leaving the country and participating in illegal training in Syria.
When Hajleh ended his stint in Syria and was preparing to return home last year, his commander ordered him to obtain a weapon and join the “resistance” against Israel. If he found such a weapon unavailable, he was instructed to carry out arson attacks against Israeli property or poison water sources, the Shin Bet reported.