1948 Palestinians joining ISIS: isolated cases or organized recruitment?

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Sheik Raed Salah, right, head of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, sits in the courtroom ahead of his trial at the Jerusalem Magistrates court on April 10, 2014. (Photo: AFP)

By: Jamal Sweid

Published Saturday, October 18, 2014

The story about young men from occupied 1948 Palestine joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a reminder of those who left Palestine during the Soviet war on Afghanistan to fight “the atheist invasion of Muslim land.” Today, this issue has returned to the forefront as it has become a noticeable phenomenon and Palestinians have become part of this trend. Some estimates indicate that the number of people who have joined organizations fighting in Syria and Iraq this year is close to 40. Last week, one of these men was killed fighting for ISIS in Iraq.

Haifa – Some observers believe that the Israeli security apparatus is purposefully lax when it comes to these fighters in contrast to people from 1948 Palestine who join or just help Palestinian Resistance factions or Hezbollah. So far, 18 fighters who have returned from Syria and Iraq have been tried and given “light and nominal” sentences. This creates fear of a repeat of the scenario of Palestinians who fought in Afghanistan and returned home and rejoined the Arab community in occupied 1948 Palestine with their [extremist] ideology and sectarian inclinations. Israel is exploiting this in order to scare Christians and support its tireless effort to recruit them within the ranks of its occupation army.

Along with the lax security repercussions, there is a discourse supportive of “jihadi” ideology represented by the Islamic Movement. It became evident on a number of occasions when it came to Syria, Egypt, and especially and finally ISIS, in addition to tangible support for specific organizations such as al-Nusra Front. In the final analysis, it appears that the issue is more than just a few isolated cases even though it has not reached the point of being an actual supply line, as cases only number in the dozens.

The issue appeared prominently in the media in February 2013 when an Israeli border guard arrested two young men who tried to smuggle another man to Syria through the occupied Golan Heights. The young man who was being smuggled was a prisoner on home leave. But the most famous incident was in September 2013 when a young man called Moayed Egbaria from Umm al-Fahm went to Syria through Turkey and news of his death was later announced. The Islamic Movement said through its media outlet that he is “a martyr who died while fighting in the ranks of the Syrian revolution.” However, Egbaria appeared later in a video refuting news of his death. It is said that he currently lives in Turkey.

However, there is no empirical evidence that proves the Islamic Movement’s involvement in recruiting young men to fight abroad even though its discourse is, to a large extent, consistent with that of “jihadis.” Although the leader of the Islamic Movement, Raed Salah, condemned ISIS’ actions describing them as bloody, a lot of the men who went to fight with the organization were or are members of the Movement’s northern branch.

Another incident occurred in the city of Nazareth in early September pointing in the same direction. ISIS banners appeared in the Shihab al-Din Square in the city along with banners inscribed with Quranic verses. When residents complained, Israeli police removed the banners, including the ones with Quranic verses, and some policemen trampled on them in what seemed like an attempt to create strife. This prompted political and partisan forces in Nazareth, including the Islamic Movement, to condemn the incident. But a statement by the Islamic Movement added “a condemnation of the removal of the ISIS banners,” which they said emulate “the seal of the Prophet Mohammad.”

Al-Akhbar tried to settle this controversy by talking to the official spokesperson of the Islamic Movement – the Raed Salah northern branch but he declined to comment attributing the reason to waiting for the “proper timing.”

On the political level in Tel Aviv, there are no signs that the occupation is about to take real steps to put a stop to this issue. However, the tourism minister in the Israeli government, Uzi Landau, called for taking citizenship away from those who join these groups and prevent people who left from coming back.

Arab politicians in 1948 Palestine do not see the issue as a serious one, but rather as “isolated cases that should not be paid much attention.” But some have sounded the alarm bell, including an activist in the Popular Committee for Solidarity with the Syrian people and their national leadership, Shadi Abdo from Haifa. Abdo told Al-Akhbar: “We believe that Israel, a state with massive intelligence services, is primarily responsible for these people leaving and we openly accuse it of facilitating the departure convoys of young men to Syria and Iraq.” He did not absolve the “Islamicized movements” of responsibility in supporting this phenomenon either.

The secretary of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, Ayman Odeh, goes even further arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood, including the Islamic Movement, is a “hotbed that for dozens of years produced more extreme models such as ISIS, which is akin to the most extreme form of the Israeli right-wing.” To prove his point, he referred to the Movement’s literature which sympathizes with former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden whom they officially call the “martyr sheikh.”

Recent news emerged among 1948 Palestinians that a young man by the name of Rabih Shehada, 26-years-old from Nazareth, joined ISIS after leaving his wife and child behind. He was an honor student studying engineering in university. Shehada first joined the Syrian opposition and later became a fighter with ISIS appearing in a video declaring his adoption of the organization’s methodology.

The first 1948 Palestinian who was killed with ISIS was a young man named Ahmed Habshi from the Nazareth province who had disappeared in the beginning of the year. He contacted his family a while after his disappearance to inform them that he is in Syria and will then be in Iraq next. Early in the week, his family found out from a friend from Umm al-Fahm who was with him that Habshi was “martyred.”

In conjunction with Habshi’s death, there were rumors about “three young men from Yafa al-Naseriyye who have joined ISIS according to information by a fourth friend who was with them but who had returned home.” While the families of those who join ISIS condemn what their children are doing, the families of the three aforementioned young men refused to discuss the issue.

According to Israeli sources, close to 40 young men from 1948 Palestine joined the ranks of jihadi organizations including ISIS, but 18 have returned and faced judicial procedures. What is disturbing is that while the Palestinian people are engaged in a struggle for freedom, some Palestinians are leaving to fight in another country in search of a lost caliphate that might return Jerusalem to Palestine. A few days ago, vice president of the Islamic movement, Kamal Khatib said that Jerusalem should be the “capital of the caliphate,” but Khatib did not explain to his audience what caliphate he is talking about in light of the Judaization process that is destroying Jerusalem. Instead, people should remember that the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is approaching, so there is no need for more sinister promises.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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