'More and more, moderate voices feel threatened, feel the ground falling out from beneath their feet'

Rivlin: Islamic State has taken root in Israeli Arab community

In the vacuum left by government neglect and Arab-Jewish distrust, jihadist ideas are spreading, president warns; urges investment in education, law enforcement

File: President Reuven Rivlin in his office at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on May 5, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: President Reuven Rivlin in his office at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on May 5, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin called on Monday for the government to push through new funding for Israeli Arab communities to help counter what he described as the growing influence of Islamic State in the country.

Warning that “Daesh [an Arabic acronym for Islamic State] is already inside Israel’s Arab community,” Rivlin told a security conference in Tel Aviv that more support was needed for Arab communities to combat radicalization among the young.

“Research, arrests, testimonies and both classified and unclassified analyses point clearly to growing support and even a rise in [attempts to] join Daesh among Israel’s Arabs,” he said at the annual gathering of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“Those who know the Arab community know that in recent years there has been a very significant radicalization in several Bedouin villages in the Negev and in [some] Arab villages in the north on the question of implementing sharia law. Even places and groups that are considered secular are now feeling the influence of extremist ideas. More and more, moderate voices feel threatened, feel the ground falling out from beneath their feet.”

Rivlin warned against “abandoning the Arab public to deal with the threat of Daesh alone. The rot in which Daesh has taken root is a result, among other things, of the vacuum of identity and education. The State of Israel must offer an alternative, an alternative that is not afraid of a positive and secure Israeli-Palestinian identity, and in the same breath does not accept, under any circumstance, delegitimization of the State of Israel or joining with the worst of its enemies.”

The president added: “If the rot is also a vacuum of governance [that leads to] insecurity and lack of [law] enforcement, we must also do everything possible to fill this vacuum and realize Israeli sovereignty in the entire State of Israel, even if that means finding the budget.”

Israel’s security services estimate about 50 Israeli Arabs have traveled to fight with IS in neighboring Syria.

The cabinet in December passed an estimated NIS 15 billion ($3.85 billion) plan for development in Arab communities, but neither the funding nor the specific programs have been finalized.

Rivlin, whose position as president is largely symbolic, said that while radicalism was not unique to Israel, “I am concerned that the more the state avoids taking responsibility, the more the state distances itself, the faster the jihadi Salafists will rush in to fill the vacuum.”

Recalling a meeting with a teacher in an Arab community, Rivlin said he was told many Arab Israelis feel like second-class citizens in the country. Arab Israelis say they are discriminated against and face marginalization in many Israeli institutions and in particular when it comes to access to public funds, he said.

“If the children are growing up without a dream, without hope and without aspirations, with the feeling that their blood, their lives, are of a lesser value in the state of Israel, then we must think how we can offer them a dream, hope, and faith,” Rivlin said.

And, he added, that meant Israel had to find ways to “restore trust between Arabs and Jews.”

Rivlin called on the government to push the funding through as quickly as possible.

“The recent resolution by the government on a system-wide plan for the economic integration of the Arab population is a step in the right direction,” he said.

“The plan has many detractors among the Jewish population, and it is clear why. But it is the correct and essential step, for it is a decision that represents a systemic change of direction.”

Arabs make up about 18 percent of Israel’s population.

The new concern over Arab Israeli integration follows a January 1 terror attack in Tel Aviv by an Arab Israeli, Nashat Milhem, that killed three people and led to speculation that the gunman may have been inspired by IS, though investigators are still studying his motives.

Milhem was killed in a shootout with police in his hometown of Arara after a week-long manhunt.

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