Arab Israeli Man Accused of Joining Syrian Rebels

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JERUSALEM -- A district court on Wednesday charged an Arab citizen of Israel with crimes including contact with a foreign agent after he traveled to Syria to fight alongside the rebels, Shin Bet, Israel's internal security agency, said in a statement.

The agency said that the suspect, Hikmat Massarwa, 29, a resident of Taibeh in central Israel, was arrested on March 19 after he returned to Israel, and that he had gone to Syria to join what it called elements of "the global jihad," referring to Islamic extremist groups inspired by Al Qaeda that are fighting against Syrian government forces. Another purpose of his trip, it said, was to try to locate his brother, who had gone to Syria a few months earlier with a similar goal.

It was the first such case to be publicized in Israel, and follows on the heels of charges being brought against an American, Eric G. Harroun, who fought with a group of Syrian rebels, the Nusra Front, allied with Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The Shin Bet said that Mr. Massarwa had undergone military training in a camp run by rebel forces and had even helped set up the camp.

Mr. Massarwa is said to have crossed into Syria from Turkey by foot, and to have joined up with rebels he met along the way. He left Syria after about a week and did not find his brother.

Mr. Massarwa's lawyer, Helal Jabar, said that at no point did his client try to harm Israel's state security.

"He did not join the rebels, but the reality in the area forced him to be part of this population," Mr. Jabar told Israel -Radio on Wednesday. "He helped them build tents and so on."

"It seems more than a few Israeli Arabs have done this," he added.

The Shin Bet said that it viewed Israeli Arabs traveling to Syria as "a most dangerous phenomenon," fearing that they could be indoctrinated by groups with radical anti-Israeli ideology and "exploited by terrorist elements" there. The Shin Bet added that according to its investigation, Mr. Massarwa was asked many questions by the rebels about Israel, about the types of weapons used by its military and about its nuclear reactor in Dimona. It said that Mr. Massarwa asserted that he had been asked to carry out an attack inside Israel, but had refused.

Arabs make up about 20 percent of the Israeli population. Though Arab citizens have at times sympathized with Israel's enemies, they have generally not taken up arms against the state.

Israel has tried to keep out of the Syrian conflict, seeing almost any outcome as risky for it. While Israeli leaders have called for the ouster of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, they are also leery of the insurgency, not least because some of its most effective fighting has been done by anti-Israeli forces like the Nusra Front.

Though Israel and Syria are technically in a state of war, the cease-fire line separating their forces in the Golan Heights has been mostly quiet for nearly 40 years. But with insurgent groups now operating close to that line, there are growing fears in Israel of spillover from the Syrian civil war and of the area becoming an actively hostile frontier.

There have already been a number of instances of Israel firing at targets across the cease-fire line in response to shots or mortar shells from the Syrian side that landed in the portion of the Golan Heights that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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