One Saturday evening, three weeks into Operation Protective Edge, a group of Israeli Christians gathered in Haifa to demonstrate in favour of Israel’s Gaza operation, and to draw attention to an issue which, back then, was on the sidelines of the Gaza-focused Israeli media: the Islamic State’s alarming advance across northern Iraq and Syria.
Today, talk of the Islamic State is rife in Israel, which borders Syria and is not far away from where the extremist Sunni militant group has been conquering territory and massacring those it considers infidels for the sake of the Islamic Caliphate it declared in June. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier this week borrowed the Islamic State for Hasbara purposes (see handy Venn diagram released by the Prime Minister’s Office below. Let’s hope there aren’t many more where that came from):
In Israel, where the overwhelming majority of the Arab population is Muslim and Christians make up around 2 percent of population, rumours about IS presence have been floating around throughout the summer. The Forum for the Conscription of Christians, the controversial group that organized the Haifa protest, is one of the voices saying it is fearful the Islamic State’s violent ideology – the most extreme to have come out of Al-Qaida – could take hold here.
“This is very worrying,” says Shadi Halul, the group’s spokesman. Halul told me he regularly hears from concerned Christians about Israelis expressing support for IS online. Forum members report seeing the flag and IS car stickers in places like Nazareth, Israel’s Arab capital, the Arab town of Sakhnin and the mixed city of Haifa. 0404, an Israeli news site, has also reported sightings in Nazareth. In July, a Facebook page calling to “unveil” IS sympathisers was set up, removed from Facebook around a week later, and is now online again. The nightly Channel 10 show “Tzinor Laila” (in Hebrew, from 5:44) also ran a segment on the IS rumours last week. The founders of the page told Channel 10 about a video of a Palestinian citizen of Israel with IS in Syria making the rounds on social media, and a Nazareth resident told them someone from the city had joined the group in Syria. The mayor of Nazareth vehemently refuted the claim. They also played a YouTube video, purportedly from the town of Taibeh, of a young girl cutting off the head of a doll wearing an orange Guantanamo outfit.
However, there seem to have been a number of false reports, as well as attempts by the right to demonise Israeli Muslims. Some have confused black and white flags bearing the Muslim profession of faith, the Shahada, with the now-iconic black and white IS banner. One high-profile figure to get it wrong was Habayit Hayehudi MK Ayelet Shaked. Earlier this month, the right-wing lawmaker posted a picture of a black and white Shahada flag at a protest in Acre against the Gaza war, claiming it was an IS banner. She then cited it as justification for banning Israel’s Islamic Movement. In a somewhat ironic twist, however, the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an organization that works for Jewish-Arab coexistence, pointed out that the flag spotted in Acre is used by the Islamic Movement in times of mourning instead of its usual green and white one, and has nothing to do with the Islamic State. Shaked promptly removed her post, which was screen-captured in time by Israeli blogger John Brown.
Flag sightings aside, of course there is major concern in Israel over the carnage wreaked by the Islamic State, says Wadie Abu-Nassar, director of the Catholic Bishops Conference in the Holy Land’s media committee. The city’s Christian community recently held a special prayer in solidarity with Christians suffering at IS’ hands, as well as for an end to the war in Gaza. A few weeks ago, Kurdish Jews called for action in a protest outside the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, while protesters in Jerusalem gathered outside the Prime Minister’s Residence. Abunassar says he hasn’t talked to a single interlocutor recently – Muslim, Christian, or Jewish – who is not worried about the Islamic State’s in the region. While he has heard rumors of Israelis expressing support for the group, he doesn’t see cause for alarm, however.
“I don’t think they are more than a few people, and they aren’t armed. There are a few Christians who are paranoid and afraid, they think Christians are persecuted.” Almost all Haifa clergy boycotted the forum’s protest in the city, he says. The group, led by Orthodox Priest Father Gabriel Nadaff, works together with far-right student organization Im Tirzu, and is seen as extremist by Israel’s Arab-Christian mainstream.
Sheikh Kamel Rayan, who heads the The Al-Aqsa Association for the Care of Awqaf and Holy Sites and is also a deputy in the southern faction of Israel’s Islamic Movement, doesn’t know of any IS support among Muslims in Israel – but sadly, he says, he wouldn’t be surprised to see it. It’s not just because relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews are tense in Israel, or because of anger over the devastation left by the fighting in Gaza. It is also linked to what he sees as the West’s delegitimisation of legitimate, political Islam, voted in by the people. Some young Muslims are frustrated by this lack of acceptance, he says, and “this can push them to strange, dark places.”
Furthermore, he sees a link to incitement and racism in Israel against Arabs when it comes to rumour, or someone like Shaked using an IS flag sighting to call for banning the Islamic Movement.
A slim chance, according to the experts
The likelihood of IS ideology taking hold in Israel is very slim, but it does exist, according to Dr. Reuven Paz of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. Paz, a regular visitor to jihadist and Islamist websites, is not aware of any IS-identified groups that have formed in Israel, although he says there is one group in Nazareth that identifies with global jihad ideology. There is always potential for a lone wolf to take on the IS mantel, he says, noting that dozens of Israeli Arab citizens have joined the fighting in Syria since the civil war began in 2011. To see it as a real threat would be a bit extreme, however. IS is easily accessible for potential jihadists online, but waving a flag at a protest doesn’t make you a bona-fide member.
For Israeli Arabs who support the establishment of a Caliphate, the most likely address is the Islamic Movement, says Dr. Nohad Ali, but the Movement unanimously opposes IS. Most believing Muslims in Israel see the militant group as the fruit of the U.S. and Israel, explains the sociologist from Haifa University and the Western Galilee Academic College. “They think it was created by the West to destroy the Arab Spring, and to warn people about what will happen if they choose Islam.” There is no serious support for its violent creed among Israel’s Muslims, he insists.
There is serious support in neighboring Jordan, where Paz says IS banners have definitely been spotted. Indeed, for Israel, the greatest danger is not among its citizens but on its borders, says Esther Webman of Tel Aviv University. Lebanon is dealing with the threat from Syria, and an IS advance in Jordan could affect the West Bank. IS-identified groups have sprouted in the Sinai Peninsula and in the Gaza Strip, where they have yet to form a serious political or military threat. The danger there, she says, is that as opposition to Hamas increases amid the devastation and suffering in Gaza, and the results of its negotiations with Israel, these groups could gain strength.
For the moment, Israel itself is low on the Islamic State’s list of priorities. Although IS identified with Gaza residents, not Hamas, during the fighting in the Strip, Palestinian Nationalism is anathema to the idea of an Islamic Caliphate, which would remove nation-state borders drawn across the Mideast by the West. “There are videos of Islamic State people saying ‘leave Israel, fight with us,” says Ali, “and then we will deal with Israel.’” But ultimately, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is irrelevant to their vision, adds Paz, “because in the end the big, strong Islamic army will remove the Jewish state.”