An Israeli Arab man from the central Israeli town of Jaljulia crossed the Golan Heights border to Syria on a hang glider Saturday night, the IDF said in a statement Sunday morning.
Large military forces were mobilized to the Golan Heights border on Saturday night after one of the military’s lookout positions along the border with Syria spotted a hang glider crossing from Israel and landing in Syrian territory in an area controlled by a rebel group affiliated with al Qaeda.
The man, a 23-year-old, crossed the border in order to join a terror group based in Syria, the IDF said.
It was not immediately known which group the man sought to join. The army said in a statement the incident was being examined.
IDF spokesperson Moti Almoz said an intelligence operation began in order to determine the identity of the man.
On Saturday, the army conducted a sweep of the Golan Heights including the use of UAVs and other aircraft in order to determine whether the man who crossed the country was a soldier.
“During the night some operations were taken and the Shin Bet security service is leading the investigation. If the story checks out, we will need to decide what to do further, but from a military perspective this is no longer considered a situation,” he said Sunday morning.
Almoz would not say whether the army knows which one of the myriad terror groups the man decided to join.
After surveillance soldiers spotted the hang glider, the army did not try to shoot him down.
The man’s family on Sunday said that he has grown closer to Islam over the past year. Speaking to Hebrew paper Haaretz, his uncle said the man’s father received a call about one hour after IDF lookouts spotted the hang glider entering Syria in which he was told “Your son is OK, he’s with us, don’t worry.” The caller immediately hung up up and according to the father, had a Bedouin accent.
“He started becoming more religious, praying every morning at the mosque,” the uncle told Haaretz. “His family is secular, but a year ago he started growing stronger in faith.”
The man is the second of five children, the uncle said, adding that the news took his family by surprise. “His mother, from the minute it happened, is only crying and yelling in the hope he comes back home. They now say he bought the hang glider and hid it in the car. It’s not clear how he could do this. One needs to know how to control this thing and fly it. Where did he practice? We don’t know,” he said.
Jaljulia Mayor Faik Odeh said the family was not known in the village for having radical views. “It’s not one of the largest families in the village but certainly a known and good family,” he said. “They are not considered nationalistic; it’s a quiet family,” Odeh told Haaretz.
The Golan, on a mountain plateau, is a popular spot for hang gliding enthusiasts.
IDF spokesperson Almoz said that the army “did not see where he took off from but usually people glide from Mevo Hama,” a community in the southern Golan Heights.
According to Hebrew-language news website Ynet, the man landed in the south of the Syrian Golan Heights near the Jordanian border. The area is controlled by jihadist group Shuada al Yarmouq, made up of al-Qaeda defectors.
The group has in the past pledged allegiance to Islamic State, and has been fighting the Nusra Front, a local affiliate of al-Aqeda which is today the dominant rebel group in the Golan.
Almoz said that the man’s crossing into Syria seemed to be carefully worked out in advance.
“We don’t know whether anyone was waiting to receive him on the other side, but we assume that someone gliding against the direction other people glide does so on purpose,” he said.
The incident began on Saturday afternoon but was only cleared for publication after the man’s identity was found out and the military was sure that the man crossing the border was not a defecting soldier.
Since the collapse of Bashar Assad’s army in the Golan Heights, the IDF has shifted its intelligence-gathering focus in the Golan Heights to the various terror groups operating there.
One of the scenarios considered is an infiltration of commando terrorists via hang gliders or even on foot. The Golan Division has also been preparing for scenarios in which Shuada al Yarmouq terrorists try to carry out a terror attack in the south of the Golan Heights.
The area is characterized by deep canyons and cannot be reached by IDF tanks, giving commando terrorists entering on foot an advantage.
Speaking at the cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the man’s citizenship would be revoked. “Those who join the enemy’s ranks will not be Israeli citizens,” he said.
In November 1987, two operatives from a Palestinian terror group glided unspotted into Israel and infiltrated a military base near the border, killing six soldiers.