Israeli Security Forces Carefully Watch for Presence of Islamic State but Find It Has Little Support in the Country

GettyImages 479528710 e1705001192630
A Palestinian man walks past graffiti portraying the Islamic State group's flag in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, July 5, 2015. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

By: Keren Setton Published: January 11, 2024

“There is concern that people looking for a connection to Islamic State will forge connections with other terrorists around the world, accumulate knowledge, and build extensive terrorist networks,” expert says

The Israel Police and the Shin Bet Security Agency announced Thursday that two residents of East Jerusalem had been arrested ahead of being indicted for planning to carry out bombing attacks in the Old City.

According to the statement, the two men are supporters of the Islamic State (IS) movement and were preparing explosive devices to be used against Israeli security forces. As stated by the police, the men were influenced by IS content they were exposed to online.

The IS movement is a transnational insurgent group that emerged in the early 2000s. With an extreme interpretation of Islam, it managed to gain control in parts of Syria and Iraq through acts of unprecedented and especially cruel violence. Seeking to establish a worldwide caliphate and erase national borders, the group’s ideology and attempt to implement it came with acts of violence that shocked the world. The US, with other allies, embarked on a major military effort to combat the organization in 2014. While this effort did have substantial success, IS has not been eliminated, especially not as an ideology.

This recent incident in East Jerusalem is not the first time that people accused of supporting IS have tried to execute terrorist attacks in its name in Israel. That being said, support for and membership in IS are not so rampant in Israel.

There should be a distinction between being a member of an organization such as Islamic State, which implies they were recruited by IS operators in the Middle East, or just sitting in front of a computer and being influenced by IS propaganda and incitement

“There should be a distinction between being a member of an organization such as Islamic State, which implies they were recruited by IS operators in the Middle East, or just sitting in front of a computer and being influenced by IS propaganda and incitement,” said Dr. Udi Balanga, from the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “Belonging to Islamic State is a big word,” he told The Media Line.

According to Balanga, there have been very few active attempts by IS terrorists from outside of Israel to recruit Israeli operatives.

Israel is no stranger to terrorist attacks. In recent years, some terrorists who perpetrated attacks identified with the goals of IS. In 2022, during a wave of terror attacks, some of the attackers were believed to be associated with IS and had previously served prison terms for their affiliation with the organization or attempts to cross the border into Syria with the intent of joining IS there.

However, the organization has failed to establish a foothold in Israel despite the plethora of options for people wanting to join terrorist organizations that operate against the Jewish state.

Support for Islamic State in Israel is pretty marginal

“Support for Islamic State in Israel is pretty marginal,” said Ido Zelkovitz, Head of Middle East Studies at Yezreel Valley College and expert on Palestinian society and politics from the Chaikin Chair in Geostrategy at the University of Haifa. “The reason for this is because of the character of the Palestinian national struggle and the deep involvement of the Islamic movement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Salafi-jihadi movement (conservative and puritanical Islam) in Israel is not so prevalent,” he explained to The Media Line.

The two men who were recently arrested come from East Jerusalem, which Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War. According to the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, Arabs compose almost 40% of Jerusalem’s population, and most of them live in East Jerusalem. That part of the city suffers from poor infrastructure, higher crime rates, and less law enforcement.

The majority of the residents in East Jerusalem are not citizens of Israel. As permanent residents only, they do not have the right to vote in Israeli national elections. In contrast, Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up approximately 20% of the country’s population, suffer similar discrimination but are entitled to vote in national elections.

Conflicted between their national identity as Palestinians and their residency in the national home of the Jewish people, some Arab non-Israeli citizens have found their way into the arms of terrorist organizations. For East Jerusalem residents, their identity is further complicated as they do not belong to any national entity, not even the Palestinian Authority, which governs Palestinians just a few miles from Jerusalem.

The majority of the Arab public is revolted by the organization and its ideology

According to Dr. Michael Barak, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism and a lecturer at Reichman University, IS takes advantage of people who are undergoing some sort of crisis, especially related to their identity.

“Islamic State has managed to brand itself as an entity above nationalism, which gives people meaning to their lives,” Barak told The Media Line.

“The majority of the Arab public is revolted by the organization and its ideology,” said Barak, an expert on Islamic fundamentalism. “There is little identification with the messages of IS that are too extreme, but there is also extensive Israeli enforcement against any support.”

IS does not identify with Palestinian nationalism, something that many Arab Israelis do identify with

The Palestinian aspiration for statehood contradicts IS ideology, which seeks to blur the borders that exist between Muslim countries.

“IS does not identify with Palestinian nationalism, something that many Arab Israelis do identify with,” Barak explained.

During Israel’s current war with Hamas, it has tried to equate Hamas’ actions to those of IS. As images emerged of Hamas’ murderous actions against Israelis on Oct. 7, which included mutilation, rape, beheading, and the burning of bodies, the hashtag #hamasisisis was used by civilians and government officials alike. Although Hamas is an Islamic movement that applies a very restrictive version of Islamic, or Sharia, law in the Gaza Strip, its main political motivation is Palestinian nationalism, which, according to its followers, can be achieved only through the destruction of Israel.

“What motivates people to join or identify with Islamic State within Israel, aside from the ideological dimension and the resistance to Western culture, is the disappointment from the Islamist frameworks in Israel to conduct an armed struggle against Jewish targets in Israel,” Zelkovitz told The Media Line.

The Islamic movement in Israel operates among Israel’s Arab citizens. Divided into southern and northern branches, the southern branch is considered more moderate and focused on social and religious activities. Meanwhile, the northern branch and its leaders are considered more zealous and politically active. The northern branch calls on Arab Israelis to boycott national elections. It was outlawed by the Israeli parliament in 2015, pushing it to the sidelines.

The Islamic movement is part of the larger Muslim Brotherhood movement in the Middle East, a movement that promotes Islamic principles within nations. It is therefore contradictory to IS.

Yet, Islamic State is still on the fringes of those seeking to operate against Israel.

“Such an organization can only thrive in areas where there is no functioning state so that it can fill the vacuum,” said Zelkovitz. “In Israel, this is not the case. But also, there is a very strong effort on the part of the security forces to monitor this phenomenon, also in the cyber sphere.”

For Israeli security forces, however, thwarting IS attacks is important.

“There is concern that such people looking for a connection to Islamic State will forge connections with other terrorists around the world, accumulate knowledge, and build extensive terrorist networks,” Barak summarized.