Israel’s crackdown on Arab citizens trying to join the Islamic State terror group in Syria or Iraq or to set up cells at home have prevented the threat reaching the scale seen in the West, an adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in a magazine interview.
About 18 percent of Israel’s population are Muslim Arabs.
However, a rash of defections to Islamic State-held areas of Syria and Iraq and trials of Israeli citizens for identifying with the terror group prompted President Reuven Rivlin to warn in January that “considerable radicalization” was taking root among Israel’s Arab minority.
Eitan Ben David, head of the Counterterrorism Bureau in Netanyahu’s office, told the bi-monthly journal Israel Defense that “more than a few dozen, but not more than 100” Israeli Arabs had joined Islamic State’s ranks – and some might return.
“These foreign fighters can certainly pose a grave danger internally, so the Shin Bet and all the state system is doing very good work in foiling this threat, which could be a kind of spreading cancer,” Ben-David said.
“To our satisfaction, the situation is reasonable. It is not like any European country, nor even America, or places like China or Russia which have had a great number of homegrown ISIS fighters,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Israel formally outlawed Islamic State in 2014 and negotiated the repatriation for trial of several Arab citizens who had joined or tried to join the terrorists via Turkey or Jordan.
But government policy hardened last year after one Israeli Arab used a paraglider to fly into an Islamic State-controlled part of southern Syria and after another who had served as a volunteer in Israel’s army defected to the terrorists.
Further raising alarm, two video clips surfaced in October in which Islamic State terrorists vowed in Arabic-accented Hebrew to strike Israel. The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, echoed the threat in an audiotape released in December.
But Ben David sounded circumspect about that prospect, citing potentially more pressing dangers from Lebanon’s Hizbullah terror group or Palestinian terrorists.
“When it comes to Islamic State, we worry about terrorist attacks against Israeli or Jewish targets, including abroad, but we are not a main target right now,” he said.