JERUSALEM—Concern in Jerusalem over possible spillover of the Syrian civil war across Israel’s northern border is being supplanted by concern over the return of local Arabs who have fought in the ranks of al Qaeda affiliated militias in Syria and been radicalized.
An Israeli Arab pharmacy student, Abd al-Kadr Altaleh, was sentenced this week to 15-months imprisonment following his admission that he joined the ranks of the al-Nusra Front after crossing into Syria from Turkey last year.
Judge Shira Ben-Shlomo said that Israeli citizens who join the war in Syria posed a real threat to Israel since they could put their military training and radical indoctrination to use against the state after returning. In Altaleh’s case, the judge leveled a relatively moderate sentence after an evaluation that he was primarily motivated by a desire to help the Syrian people.
In a case last year, Israeli authorities were likewise reluctant to seek a heavy sentence against an Israeli Arab who had returned from Syria, apparently because of uncertainty over whom to back in the civil war. Hikmat Massarwa, a 29-year-old baker, admitted to spending a week at a rebel base and undergoing small-arms training by radical Islamists. Israeli prosecutors said he was asked to carry out a suicide attack in Israel but declined.
Judge Avraham Yaakov, who sentenced him to 30-months imprisonment, noted, "There’s no legal guidance regarding the rebel groups fighting in Syria."
Israel has made a point of not backing either side but the rebels were tacitly approved of in the early stages of the uprising until it became apparent that al Qaeda affiliated groups were taking the lead in the fighting.
Massarwa acknowledged in his plea bargain that his actions "had potential to threaten the security of the state of Israel." The prosecutors dropped a number of charges, including illicitly receiving military training, which could have merited a 15-year sentence.
Massarwa’s attorney, Helal Jaber, told Reuters that the prosecution was intended to deter other Israeli Arabs from going to Syria and acquiring fighting skills and a radical agenda.
About 15 Israeli Arabs are believed to be presently fighting on the side of the rebels in the civil war and several are serving on the side of the Bashar Assad regime.
There is concern among both Israelis and Palestinians about West Bank Palestinians returning from Syria and establishing terrorist cells.
The Times of Israel reported yesterday that some 40 West Bank Palestinians are being held in Palestinian Authority prisons on suspicion of having fought in the ranks of radical militias in Syria. Palestinian sources told the news website that the Palestinian Authority was determined to prevent the West Bank population from being radicalized by fighters returning from Syria.
Israel’s Shin Bet security service has warned that would-be jihadists in Israel and the West Bank may be drawn to the civil war across the northern border and deepen the roots of al Qaeda and other radical groups in the region. Syria is generally entered through Turkey but some have cloaked their move by first traveling as pilgrims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center in Israel reported in December that a growing number of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are making their way to Syria to join radical forces. Seven Gazans are reported to have been killed in action thus far, three of them while staging suicide attacks.