Ayoob Kara, a deputy Israeli cabinet minister, used to double as an unofficial intermediary with the few of his fellow Arab citizens who have left to join Islamic State in Syria or Iraq.
Negotiating discreetly through relatives and go-betweens, he would offer them reduced jail terms if they returned to Israel, cooperated with security services and helped deter other would-be Islamic State recruits by publicly disavowing the group.
A half-dozen volunteers took the deal, Kara says.
But with the number of Islamic State sympathizers in Israel growing from its initial trickle, and some accused of trying to set up armed cells within the country’s 18-percent Muslim minority, the deputy minister no longer sounds so accommodating.
“I used to work hard to dissuade people from joining ISIS, but now I say that there’s no point,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“If, by this point, when the dangers are abundantly clear to everyone, they still want to go, then they are beyond saving and it’s a one-way ticket for them. It’s literally a dead end.”
Kara, a confidant of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was expressing a hardening of government policy against Islamic State, which, though preoccupied with battling Syrian and Iraqi regime forces, has recently threatened to attack Israel.
Israel sees a major cross-border attack on it by Islamic State as unlikely. But it is less sanguine about support for the group inside Israel, which is already beset by Palestinian terrorism that has surged in the last three months.
“It (Islamic State influence) is beginning to spread here as well,” Intelligence Ministry director-general Ram Ben-Barak told Israel’s Army Radio on Sunday. “The ISIS scenario we worry about is ISIS cells arising in Israel to carry out terrorist attacks.”
“It has taken time for the monstrousness of ISIS to dawn, so while Israel is seeking greater penalties for joining it, this had been taking time too,” said Abu Hussein, who also heads the Israeli Arab civil rights group Adalah.
Abu Hussein said the Shin Bet appeared to be refocusing its anti-Islamic State efforts on social media activity by Arab citizens that might flag up nascent sympathizers for arrest.
According to Kara, the value to Israeli intelligence of Arab citizens who came back from Islamic State’s fiefdoms had waned – meaning any returnees had less to bargain with for clemency.
“There was a time when someone would come back and provide useful information on their camps and recruitment, et cetera,” Kara said. “But that’s in the past now. The whole world is fighting Islamic State and everything is pretty much known.”