Why has Israel gone quiet over ISIS?

Israeli officials have now noticeably diverted their attention to a surge in Israeli-Palestinian deadly violence

Eman El-Shenawi
Eman El-Shenawi - Al Arabiya News
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In its first-ever video message in Hebrew, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has sent out a threat that “not one Jew will remain in Jerusalem,” amid recently escalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

But the video, released on Friday, has so far failed to attract official Israeli attention – in contrast to Israel’s previous persistent finger-pointing at ISIS.

Israeli officials have now noticeably diverted their attention to a deadly surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence, predominantly in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. Have Israeli concerns over ISIS now taken a back seat?

“For Israel, the escalation with the Palestinians has overshadowed its concerns over ISIS in neighboring Syria,” Lina Khatib, a London-based Senior Research Associate at the Arab Reform Initiative, told Al Arabiya News on Saturday.

Throughout 2015, Israel had been sounding the alarm that ISIS was “closing in on Northern and Southern Israeli borders,” that ISIS militants were posing as illegal migrants in Europe, as well as releasing a political campaign video showing men in an SUV waving an ISIS flag asking for directions to Jerusalem.

Now, instead of a continued focus on ISIS’s threat to security, Israeli statements have become mostly centered on anti-Palestinian rhetoric, as seen in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last U.N. General Assembly speech, as well as his recent controversial remark that a Palestinian was directly responsible for the Holocaust.

When ISIS has been mentioned in recent weeks, it is mostly grouped with statements targeting Hamas, Iran or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

And while ISIS is now appearing to position itself as supporters of the Palestinian people, it has previously threatened to “uproot” Hamas in Gaza in a video released last July.

There have reportedly been at least a dozen attacks this year on Hamas in Gaza by ISIS sympathizers, including four in May. One bomb hit a Hamas security checkpoint in northern Gaza. A few days later, another exploded in a trash can. Another blew up next to a Gaza City high-rise, and a small one targeted a chicken store owned by Hamas intelligence official Saber Siyam.

On the day that ISIS threatened Hamas, Israeli Intelligence minister Israel Katz said there was “cooperation” between Hamas and ISIS “in the realm of weapons smuggling and terrorist attacks… At the same time, within Gaza, ISIS has been flouting Hamas. But they have common cause against the Jews, in Israel or abroad.”

But while Israeli officials have repeatedly combined Hamas and ISIS in their rhetoric, the view that ISIS and Israel also have common concepts – a shared hostility towards Hamas and the Palestinian Authority – has not gone unmentioned.

ISIS video earlier this year threatened to overthrow Hamas in Gaza. (YouTube)
ISIS video earlier this year threatened to overthrow Hamas in Gaza. (YouTube)

Explaining the Israel-Hamas-ISIS “hate triangle,” Khatib said that “ISIS leaders have often declared that fighting apostate Sunnis is a priority over fighting Jews. The ISIS threats directed at Hamas and the Palestinian Authority fall under this category.

“With Israel taking an antagonistic stance to the Palestinian Authority as well as its continuing antagonism towards Hamas, Israel has come to be aligned with the position of ISIS,” Khatib added.

Meanwhile, “ISIS is seeking to use worsening Israeli-Palestinian violence to increase its visibility in this arena,” Middle East historian Olivia L. Sohns told Al Arabiya News following the release of the new ISIS video.

Sohns said the militant group “is attempting to position itself as the champion of the Sunni Muslim world and is extremely hostile towards the West and Israel, which it considers a transplant of the West in the Middle East.”

Israel’s spotlight on ISIS has now dimmed with escalating violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank, claiming the lives of at least 51 Palestinians and nine Israelis in the past month.

“Israel’s main concern today is to stabilize the situation with the Palestinians,” Dr. Alon Ben Meir, an American academic specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and the Arab states, told Al Arabiya News.

“Israel understands all too well that they have to deal, now and in the future, with the Palestinians, and it also understands that ISIS will not survive in the long run, whereas the Palestinian conflict will remain present until it is resolved.

“And Netanyahu knows all too well that further escalation will only antagonize the international community and increase pressure on him to contact the conflict, the sooner the better,” Ben Meir added.

Israeli soldiers and policemen take position during clashes with Palestinians near the Jewish settlement of Bet El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Reuters)
Israeli soldiers and policemen take position during clashes with Palestinians near the Jewish settlement of Bet El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Reuters)

But in response to claims that ISIS and Israel are “pursuing the same goals” in the Middle East, Ben Meir said: “I do not believe that you will ever find Israel, in any shape or form, supporting ISIS or “fighting on the same side.”

Middle East analyst James Dorsey, who has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, agrees.

“I think its stretching things by far to conclude that Israel and ISIS could find common ground, particularly in their opposition to Hamas.

“Obviously, the wave of Palestinian protests and attacks is Israel’s most immediate concern … Having said that, it does not mean that Israel is taking its eye of the ball in Syria. ISIS too poses a serious threat even if Israel is not ISIS’s immediate focus,” Dorsey added.

It is also probable that Israel’s concerns over ISIS have taken a back seat following ally Russia’s decision to carry out strikes on militant targets in Syria.

Still, Tel Aviv’s response to the latest ISIS threat remains to be seen. An Israeli interior ministry spokesperson contacted by Al Arabiya News did not respond to a request for comment on Israel’s security concerns.

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