Salafist jihadists, until now unknown in West Bank, rear their heads

The killing of three terrorists throws new light on radical elements within a generally nonmilitary movement

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Mourners attend the funeral of Palestinian militants Khaled al-Najjar and Mussa Fanasheh on Wednesday November 27, 2013 in the West Bank village of Yatta, near Hebron, one day after they were shot dead by Israeli forces. (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Mourners attend the funeral of Palestinian militants Khaled al-Najjar and Mussa Fanasheh on Wednesday November 27, 2013 in the West Bank village of Yatta, near Hebron, one day after they were shot dead by Israeli forces. (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Three Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the Hebron region Tuesday were linked to a group that, in the West Bank at least, had not been known for terror in the past, according to sources within the Israeli security apparatus.

The three terror suspects, residents of the city, were members of a Salafist stream that had until now refrained from political-military activities in the West Bank, contenting themselves with promoting religious ideas.

However, a turn by Salafists to terror was only a matter of time, if Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and other arenas are taken as precedents.

In the West Bank today there are likely tens of thousands of supporters of the ideals of the Salafists, an ultra-religious sect which calls for following the way of the prophet Mohammed and an exclusive small group of supporters who surrounded him.

As a whole, they are not terror operatives and don’t call for any violent activities against Israel.

The problem is not with them, but with the members of the Salafist-jihadist stream, which managed to win over some of the “civilian” Salafists.

A similar process happened in the Gaza Strip. For decades the Salafists were active there without friction with the security forces of Israel, or those of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. They stood out only for their unusual dress and their long beards.

In recent years, there was an increase of Salafist involvement in terror attacks against Israel and they began to clash with the Hamas government. A little too late, the Hamas brass realized the threat that it was facing from the Salafist jihadist groups, which had gained power and status under their nose, and only then began working to rein them in.

In the West Bank, the activities of many Salafist supporters of a group calling itself “Hezb a-Tahrir,” or the Freedom Party, were known. More than once they held demonstrations against Israel and against the Palestinian Authority. In fact, the Palestinian security services has acted against suspects in the organization, which has gained a lot of popularity in light of the weakening of the PA and Hamas.

Hezb a-Tahrir has gained grassroots support in Hebron, always thought of as a hotbed of religiously extremism, and also in East Jerusalem, where its members were involved in violent demonstrations on the Temple Mount. However, the three terror suspects killed Tuesday were not acting in the name of that group.

It is hard to know which way the members of the Salafist stream will go following Tuesday’s incident. It is possible that they will maintain their civilian character. It is more likely that at least some of them will try to establish a military infrastructure in one form or another in order to carry out attacks.

The radicalization has made its way to the Salafists in the West Bank and not just the Hebron area. Some of the members of the Salafist group that were arrested in recent days tried to set up a terror infrastructure in Nablus. The have no identifiable leader or even a decision-making infrastructure. What may seem a weakness is actually a headache for the Israeli security, unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are familiar, and relatively known from an intelligence point of view.

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