How Dangerous Is the Islamic State to Israel?

The more Islamic State is suffering military setbacks in Syria and Iraq, the more probable terrorist attacks against Israel become.

At the end of October 2015, Islamic State uploaded its first video in Hebrew and threatened that “not a single Jew will remain in Jerusalem.” Two months later, an audio tape of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic States, surfaced. He threatened Israel directly for the first time: “Palestine will not be your land or your home…It will be a graveyard for you.” A few weeks later, in January 2016, Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin stated: “The Islamic State is already here [in Israel].”

The first firefight between the IDF and an Islamic State-affiliated group in the Golan Heights, and a foiled terrorist attack on Israel’s national football team in Albania, both at the end of November 2016, have evoked the question: how dangerous is Islamic State to Israel?

In order to answer this question, one should assess three theaters: (1) Israel’s border areas where Islamic State-affiliated groups are active; (2) the Palestinian territories; (3) Israel.

The Border Areas: Sinai and the Golan Heights

Cairo is confronted with a serious insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. Wilayat Sinai, the Sinai Province of Islamic State, concentrates its attacks on Egypt’s security forces in the Sinai and has caused hundreds of casualties. However, since summer 2016, Egypt’s counterinsurgency campaign seems to have gathered momentum; the attacks of Wilayat Sinai have become less effective and complex. Although the border is fairly quiet from Israel’s perspective, the IDF believes that Wilayat Sinai will eventually attack Israel as well. Thus, the IDF has already intensified border controls.

The Syrian civil war confronts Israel with a highly volatile security situation in the northern theater. There were several incidents along the Syrian-Israeli border in the last years, ranging from (accidental) mortar and artillery fire to targeted attacks on Israeli military patrols. Israel, however, has kept its deterrence up with occasional aerial attacks in Syria. Nevertheless, the overall security situation in the Golan Heights is rather quiet.

At the end of November 2016, however, a reconnaissance unit of Israel’s Golani Brigade was attacked by the Khaled Ibn al-Walid Army (an Islamic State-affiliated group formerly known as the Yarmuk Martyr Brigades.) This was the first direct military encounter between Israel and Islamic State. Only time will tell if this incident turns out as an isolated case or turning point in the Golan Heights.

Another scenario Israel should closely monitor is a possible destabilization of Jordan by Islamic State. Keep in mind that Israel shares its longest border with the Hashemite kingdom. Frustrated members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi Palestinians and economically-neglected Bedouin tribes might present a base for recruitment. However, the Jordanian security agencies have proved capable and loyal to the regime.  

The Palestinian Territories

So far, there have been very few indications of a direct Islamic State presence in the West Bank. Besides the effective work of Israeli security agencies (sometimes in close cooperation with Palestinian counterparts), the support for Islamic State in the West Bank seems to be limited. Polls have shown that only three percent of the Palestinians consider Islamic State as “truly Islamic” (in contrast to nine percent in Gaza.) Nonetheless, Islamic State promotes its cause: in July 2015, the organization uploaded a video that featured Palestinian fighters in Syria who called on their fellow countrymen to pledge allegiance to Islamic State. At least some of the lone wolf attackers who triggered the terror wave that hit Israel between October 2015 and spring 2016 and caused the death of more than forty Israelis, had been inspired or incited by Islamic State. The deadliest terrorist attack in this regard was committed by two residents of Yatta in the southern West Bank. They opened fire in a restaurant at Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market and killed four Israelis on June 8, 2016. Israel’s Shin Bet emphasized that the attack had been inspired by Islamic State; however, the terrorists had acted alone without direct support of the organization. Thus, Islamic State is above all an inspiration for Palestinians willing to resort to violence.

The Gaza Strip, however, is a different story. Salafism is deeply rooted in parts of Gazan society. Local Salafist groups pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Al-Baghdadi, however, rejected the offer and pointed out that the groups were too weak and ineffective to be considered an Islamic State province.