By Mel Frykberg
February 16, 2014
Ultraconservative Islamic extremists in the Gaza Strip are recruiting and guiding Palestinian jihadists in the West Bank, opening a new frontier for the militants known as Salafists, according to the Israeli intelligence agency, Shin Bet.
Salafists enforce a fundamentalist form of Islam that promotes violent jihad, or holy war, against non-believers. They settled in Gaza about a decade ago, and have collaborated for some time with militants in Egypt, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula.
Shin Bet says West Bank recruits are being managed by the Gaza-based jihadists, who use only nom de guerres and contact new members through social media including Facebook and Skype.
“The radicalization of the West Bank is going to get a lot worse,” said Samir Awad, a political scientist at Birzeit University, near Ramallah. “Many Palestinians are in despair at the continued Israeli occupation, settlement growth, failing peace talks and are turning to extremist solutions.”
Israeli security forces have begun conducting targeted assassinations in Gaza of suspected militants linked to jihadist groups in the Sinai, especially Ansar Beit Al Makdis, a key Salafist group in the area that has claimed responsibility for several attacks against Egyptian security forces and government personnel.
Earlier this month, the Israeli air force conducted an airstrike over Gaza, wounding a militant who is suspected of aiding Ansar Beit Al Makdis, which fired rockets at the Israeli city of Eilat from the Sinai last month. The militant, Abdallah Kharti, belonged to Gaza’s Popular Resistance Committees group, which has claimed responsibility for firing rockets at Israel.
It was the Israelis’ third assassination attempt in two weeks against extremists who were not members of Hamas, the militant group that governs the Gaza Strip. In the two previous attacks, one operative was killed and another wounded.
The targets were members of independent cells of groups that form a loose coalition of global jihadists inspired by the al Qaeda terrorist network, Israeli officials said.
“An Israeli crackdown will not solve anything. It will create more sympathy for the Jihadists and entice more recruits,” Mr. Awad said.
Israel’s jihadist threat in the West Bank has been mounting has spill over from Syria’s civil war has increased throughout the region, analysts note. Jihadists, some of them linked to al Qaeda, have taken up arms with Syria rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
“The Syrian war and its aftermath is becoming a growing threat to Israel’s security,” said Pinhas Inbari, of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs.
Late last year, Israeli forces in the southern West Bank town of Hebron shot dead three members of a shadowy, al Qaeda-inspired group who allegedly were on their way to attack targets in Israel.
In addition, Israeli authorities arrested two Palestinians from East Jerusalem and one from Jenin in the northern West Bank and accused them of plotting suicide attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the International Convention Centre in Jerusalem.
The trio reportedly had been recruited over the Internet by the Gaza-based “Arib Al Sham” (a religious nickname meaning “the outstanding one from Syria”) who claimed to work for al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In another recent case, an Israeli court this month sentenced an Israeli-Arab from central Israel to 18 months prison for crossing into Syria and joining the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, one of the most effective rebel forces in the country.
Abd al-Kadr Altaleh was exposed to radical Islamic ideology while studying pharmacy in Jordan. He later travelled to Turkey and entered Syria illegally on foot before joining the Nusra Front. He was arrested after returning to Israel.
Israeli officials estimate that about 15 Israeli-Arabs are fighting in Syria against the Assad regime.