Number of Palestinians fighting in Syria on the rise

Palestinian jihadists fighting Assad could turn against their governments after returning home, Israeli report warns

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Syrian rebel fighters return from the battlefield in Idlib province, Syria, September 2013 (photo credit: AP)
Syrian rebel fighters return from the battlefield in Idlib province, Syria, September 2013 (photo credit: AP)

The number of Palestinians leaving to fight forces loyal to the Assad regime in Syria is on the rise, a new Israeli report found.

According to Sunday’s study by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Information Center in Herzliya, between 20 and 30 Salafis from the Gaza Strip have so far joined the ranks of Syrian jihadist organizations such as Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate defined as a terrorist organization by the US. Seven Gaza natives — including former Hamas members — have so far been killed in action, including three as a result of suicide attacks.

In addition, between 10 and 15 Israeli Arabs have also embarked on jihad in Syria. Despite their relatively low numbers, the report found an increase in Palestinian fighters traveling to Syria, raising concern they may become radicalized on the battlefield and subsequently carry out attacks against their own governments — whether in Gaza or Israel — upon their return home.

The Palestinian fighters in Syria mostly enter through Turkey, the report found; some of them following a trip to Saudi Arabia where they travel under the guise of Hajj, the annual religious pilgrimage to Mecca.

The death of 28-year-old Muayyed Aghbariyah from the Wadi Ara village of Musheirfeh in September was reported by Israeli media as the first case of an Israeli citizen killed while fighting in Syria. In March, Israeli airport police detained Hikmat Masarwah, a 29-year-old man from the central Israeli city of Taibe, after he reportedly returned from fighting in Syria under pressure from his family.

But on the whole, Palestinians constitute a small fraction of the total number of foreign volunteers flocking to the country to fight the Assad regime. A report published in April by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, a London-based research center, found that between 2,000 and 5,500 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria since the start of the civil war there in early 2011. The European share of these fighters is estimated at 135 to 590 individuals, or 7-11 percent of the total number of fighters.

The report dispels claims that foreigners comprise a majority of the opposition combatants fighting in Syria. According to the most conservative estimates, non-Syrians comprise no more than 10 percent of the fighting opposition body.

In February, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Syria has become “the number one destination” for jihadists from across the world, warning that they may return to the UK “ideologically hardened” and carry out attacks in their home countries.

“The longer the conflict continues, the greater this danger will become,” Hague said.

The fear of extremist spillover is shared by Middle Eastern leaders as well. On Saturday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned attendees at a security conference in Bahrain that Syria was quickly becoming an ungovernable “Islamic emirate.”

“The most important danger coming out of the Syria conflict for Iraq … and for the region is the mushrooming of terrorist groups and fronts in Syria,” Zebari said.

“These are armies of recruits,” he continued. “They’re not all Syrians. There are European nationals. Some of them have come as far as from Australia, from Canada, and from many other countries. This is really toxic.”

AP contributed to this report. 

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