Geopolitics

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's kind 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.

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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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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