Middle East

Arab-Israeli's death in Syria raises security fears

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Media captionYolande Knell meets the father of Muayyed Ighbariya, who is the first known Israeli citizen to have become a casualty of Syria's conflict

In the town of Mushirfa in northern Israel, the quiet is only broken by the sound of crowing cockerels or the call to prayer from the local mosque.

It seems a long way from the civil war in neighbouring Syria, where opposition forces have recently been involved in fierce clashes with government troops around Damascus.

Yet this was the home of Mueid Aghbaria, a 28-year-old construction worker who shot to death on the outskirts of the Syrian capital last month.

Videos and photographs of his bloodied corpse were posted on the internet and shown in the media.

"From the information we gathered, he got a one-way ticket to Turkey and, as God knows, from there he went into Syria," his father Zaki tells me.

He says Muied was very religious and had long had jihadist sympathies. He had previously wanted to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq. Attempts to change his thinking failed.

When he disappeared in August, his family had its suspicions but did not know that he had joined the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda.

"We weren't surprised because we knew that since he was a teenager Mueid always wanted to leave, to join a resistance movement to become a martyr and fight in the name of God," says Mr Aghbaria.

"He believed he was following his calling and his group, and that he was supporting his fellow Muslims who had fallen victim in this conflict."

A large poster displayed in the family home celebrates the young man's death as a "martyr" and hero, and includes religious quotes associated with the global jihadist movement.

Wider trend

Hundreds of foreign fighters from Arab and European countries have entered Syria over the past year or so to join the opposition forces.

Most are deeply devout Muslims, in their 20s or early 30s, who join armed militias fighting against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

However, the death of a man from Mushirfa has drawn attention to the issue of Israeli citizens fighting among the rebels.

There are estimates that between 15 and 30 members of this country's Arab minority have headed to Syria.

Image caption Many foreign fighters have joined al-Qaeda-linked rebel brigades in Syria

"This is a global phenomenon so I'm not surprised that a few Arab-Israelis are also linked up," says Jonathan Fine, an expert on extremist religious groups at the Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC) at Herzliya. "It's on the margins, but it's something we should watch carefully."

Israel's security service, Shin Bet, has previously said that it sees Arab-Israelis going to Syria as "a very dangerous phenomenon". The fear is that they could return home battle-hardened and with more extremist ideas.

Two men from the northern town of Umm al-Fahm are believed to have headed to Syria at the same time as Muied Aghbaria. The mother of one declined to be interviewed but said she was "worried".

In August, a pharmacy student from Taibe, to the east, was charged upon returning to Israel for initiating contact with an enemy agent.

Earlier this year, another man, also from Taibe, who joined the rebel Free Syrian Army, was arrested at Ben Gurion Airport and later sentenced to 30 months in prison.

Future fears

Within Arab-Israeli society there has been little public debate about young men going to Syria. Experts say it is not something that prominent Muslim preachers are encouraging.

The more hardline branch of the conservative Islamic Movement in Israel has a strong following in the north and officially supports the Syrian opposition.

However, its leaders have said they are focused on the Palestinian struggle for independence.

Image caption Israel has recently increased troop numbers in the occupied Golan Heights

"It's true that we support the Syrian revolution, but we believe the Syrian people can handle this responsibility alone," the Islamic Movement's deputy leader, Sheikh Kamal Khatib, said recently on Nazareth-based Radio al-Shams.

"We as Palestinians have a responsibility for what's happening here and our own burning issues top our agenda. We don't need to look for fights over the border."

Israel itself remains technically at war with Syria, but until two years ago the border region remained relatively quiet.

Now there is growing concern about the increasing presence of al-Qaeda-affiliated militants across the ceasefire line in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

"Undoubtedly the Golan will become a source of trouble. The worry is the 6,000 militants based there. This is getting close to Israel and already we had a few firing incidents," notes Mr Fine.

Up to now, al-Qaeda has not prioritised the Palestinian cause and has infrequently targeted Israel, but the worry is that this could change with proximity and opportunity.