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Israel

Has ISIS Really Wormed Its Way Into The West Bank?

In Hebron, military intelligence recently broke up what it claims was an ISIS cell. Some say there's real cause for concern. Others see the crackdown as a convenient way to justify Israel's occupation of the area.

Israeli soldiers in Hebron on Jan. 8
Israeli soldiers in Hebron on Jan. 8
Piotr Smolar

HEBRON — A piece of broken glass rests on the windowsill next to a pink brush and some hair gel. Nearby is a small mirror. Brushing his hair, Ahmad Shihada sees behind him the hovel of a family home: a dirty wall, bloated in parts from damp, dangling wires, a fridge rumbling precariously.

The house contains almost nothing — a half-empty milk carton, a piece of green pepper and a tomato. It smells of urine. The landlord has given the family a month to leave the lodgings, located on the edge of the historic quarter of Hebron in the West Bank. Ahmad, 22, can in any case count on another permanent lodging, an Israeli prison.

The Palestinian Authority and Israeli agencies have pinpointed the young man as a member of the first suspected Islamic State (ISIS) cell dismantled in the West Bank. Israel has so far identified about 40 Israeli Arabs who have supposedly gone to fight with ISIS. It's a tiny number given the country's overall Arab population of 1.7 million. And yet each case sparks outsized fears of an enemy within. The specter of ISIS also sidelines concerns about the fate of the Palestinian territories.

Plotting to kill

These cases come in the wake of the 2014 Gaza operations, the absence of immediate prospects for a Palestinian state, continued expansion of Israeli settlements, and myriad daily acts of discrimination against Palestinians that must surely fuel their rage. This rage can be silent or noisy, peaceful or extremist, or even terrorist in nature. But could it start to take its cue from the Salafist plague devastating Syria and Iraq?

Yes, says the Israeli army's secret service, Shin Bet, which sees ISIS as quietly trying to seep into the West Bank. Shin Bet agents revealed the existence of the Hebron cell in early January, though arrests had already been made in mid-November.

Ahmad Shihada allegedly contacted ISIS militants through social networking sites. Initially his aim was to fight the Syrian regime. In the end, though, he allegedly decided to act in Hebron, a city of 200,000 and center of Palestinian resistance, where he and several other young men planned to kidnap an Israeli soldier, kill him and use his weapon on other Israeli troops. The group is also accused of making explosive devices intended for Palestinian policemen, considered collaborators of the occupiers.

Ahmad admitted to all this under interrogation. But seated in the glacial sitting room of their home, his 48-year-old mother Samar refuses to believe it. "The Israelis think we are all members of terrorist organizations. How could he have started a cell, with no money?"

A year before his detention, Ahmad, who works in his father's fruit and vegetables street stall, was arrested by Palestinian state agents. "They accused him of being a Salafist," his mother says. "They said it was the same thing as Daesh," or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

After his release, Ahmad became engaged to be married. The family tried to raise approximately 2,500 euros, though a month later the couple broke off the engagement. "We could not afford the costs," the mother says. A little later, in early 2014, Ahmad contacted another young man of his district, 23-year-old Qusai Maswadeh, a suspected cell member.

"It's all lies"

To reach Maswadeh's family home, you must cross an army checkpoint and take the famous Shuhada or Martyrs Street. This used to be the main way to the Cave of the Patriarchs. Now it'skind of ghost alley. All the Arab shops shut after 1994, when a Jewish settler carried out a bloody attack on the site, which is revered by both Muslims and Jews. Israel has banned small businesses here to protect the other settlers, who throw their trash down the market's side streets. The rubbish lands on a protective grill overhead. It all feels like in a prison.

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Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs — Photo: eman

From the balcony of the Maswadeh home, where Qusai slept, you can see the graveyard in the city center. It is full and admits no more burials. A shepherd leads a flock of goats between the tombstones. Below, on the Martyrs Street, Israeli soldiers are posted to protect about 500 settlers. Ibrahim Dib Maswadeh, 60-year-old father of six boys and three girls, once had a bike repair shop on the street. "I had queues outside my shop," he recalls. His hands are blackened. He vigorously defends his son Qusai, saying there is now way he could be an ISIS sympathizer. "It's all lies. Israel wants Daesh here," he says.

Qusai went to Jordan in 2009. His family says he worked in a watch shop, then returned to Hebron in early 2014. With money saved, he helped his father reopen a bike workshop in another district. He was to be married and went to the mosque with unusual zeal. "He knew the Koran by heart," says his brother Abdelkarim. Qusai also wore a traditional, flowing garb associated with the religious, and did not shave, but "I don't see him as a radical," the brother adds. His father says that if he were, "he would not have had settlers as customers in the shop!"

It is difficult to gauge ISIS's real potential among Palestinian youth. There has been no terrorist attack in the name of ISIS in the West Bank, but security forces are keen to nip any unauthorized objections in the bud. "There is no armed group affiliated to Islamic State in the West Bank," says the Palestinian security spokesman General Adnan al-Damiri. "Israel is behind these reports, so it can justify its continued occupation," he says.

The governor of Hebron, Kamel Hmeid, also says ISIS has "no roots" in his district. But he can see how some youngsters could go the wrong way: "They see how the occupation continues, the intolerable presence of settlers in Hebron, the daily searches. I would be surprised if they did not become radical."

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