For Israel and their parents, Arab citizens fighting in Syria raise concerns

McClatchy Foreign StaffDecember 10, 2013 

— When word came that Zaki Agbaria’s 28-year-old son had been killed in Syria, neighbors in this Arab village in northern Israel plastered every building with posters bearing his son’s photo. The grieving turned out to be for the wrong person – a slain man had been misidentified – but the martyr poster in Agbaria’s living room remains.

“I have to be realistic here,” said Agbaria, 51, about his son, Muayad. “He’s not vacationing in the Hawaiian Islands, sitting on the beach. We expect he may pass away any day.”

Israel’s Shin Bet security agency estimates that since the civil war erupted in Syria more than two years ago, about 20 Arab citizens of Israel have sneaked into Syria to fight the regime of Bashar Assad. While that’s just a handful of people, the presence of Arab Israelis among the rebel fighters is a special concern, both for Israeli security authorities and for the families of the renegade fighters.

Arab citizens make up a fifth of the Israeli population. Like all Israelis, they’re forbidden from traveling to Syria, which is officially at war with Israel, making them the unlikeliest of the foreign Muslim ideologues who’ve poured into Syria to help topple Assad – and those, perhaps, who have the most to lose if they return to their home country alive.

The parents of the renegade fighters, and their communities, are proud of the young men for aiding fellow Muslims in need, but they worry that their children may never make it back home – and if they do, that they’ll face serious charges for making contact with an enemy country.

For Shin Bet, the presence in Syria of a handful of Arab Israelis “is loaded with high potential risk for the state of Israel,” the agency said in a statement.

According to the Shin Bet, Arab Israelis who go to Syria are often fundamentalist Muslims who strengthen their ideologies once in Syria, undergo military training there and could supply intelligence about Israeli targets or be recruited to attack Israelis at home or abroad.

Attorney Hilal Jaber, who represented another Arab Israeli who traveled to Syria, said Israeli authorities were unfairly painting all those who traveled to Syria as fundamentalists.

Jaber’s client, Hikmat Masarwa, was arrested in March after returning from Syria and sentenced to two and a half years in jail. Masarwa claimed he went there not to fight but to look for his brother, who’d traveled there months before and had lost touch with his family.

Masarwa claimed that he was captured by rebels in the Free Syria Army and that he offered to help them in hopes of finding his brother. He trained with the rebels for a week, then returned to Israel via Turkey and was arrested as soon as he landed, Jaber said. Then all of Masarwa’s family was summoned for questioning.

“There is a fear that this will harm the security of Israel,” Jaber said. “Every small thing that happens, they do a full search, even sometimes by transgressing civil rights.”

The Muslim community in Israel is torn about the fighters, seeing them as irresponsible but also as helping fellow Muslims in need.

Sheikh Kemal Khatib, the deputy head of Israel’s Islamic Movement, which promotes Islam among the country’s Arabs, said he’d preached against young men such as Muayad sneaking into Syria.

“We are Arabs, Muslims, and we should help each other,” Khatib said. “But Syria doesn’t need any more youths. They have enough. Our role is in Palestine, by staying here and guarding our holy sites.”

The parents of young men who go to fight in Syria bear the most anguish: Their children often leave without warning, so their parents cannot stop them.

Agbaria said he looked on as his son avidly watched amateur videos online of Syrian government brutality, enraged at how little Western countries were doing to stop the killing of civilians. Muayad had recently married, which might have made him think twice about going to fight, but he’d also become more religious, Agbaria said.

When Muayad went missing in late August and left his phone at home, Agbaria had a hunch about where he might have gone. He went to travel offices in a nearby town and discovered that Muayad and two close friends had bought plane tickets to Turkey, which shares a border with Syria.

“I didn’t turn to the police, because I didn’t think they could help us, especially during this time of war in Syria,” Agbaria said.

Other families whose children went missing turned not to the police but to Agbaria for advice. One youth’s father and uncle were planning to visit the Syrian-Turkish border to search for their loved one, and asked Agbaria to join them. He refused.

“Where am I supposed to look? It’s not a small village.” Agbaria said.

After Muayad disappeared, the next thing Agbaria heard about him was the announcement that he’d died. A month later, Muayad called during the Eid al Adha holiday, unaware that his family was grieving his death.

The phone call, however, did not bring relief.

“He called to tell me he was alive, in good condition and good health,” Agbaria said. “He didn’t tell me where he was calling me from. . . . I had a lot of questions. I asked how long until you come back; will it be one month, two months? He said, ‘Not one month and not two, maybe a year or two.’ ”

The fear of their children being arrested once they return has made Arab-Israeli parents tight-lipped about those who disappear. One man refused to elaborate about where his nephew might be.

“From our point of view, he went to Turkey,” the uncle said. “He could be swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea – we don’t know.”

In November, Zaki Agbaria spoke to his son for two hours one day on Skype. Agbaria said he hoped to meet Muayad in a third country, maybe Turkey or Jordan.

“He said he is doing well, and he didn’t tell us where he is. He said he’s getting a salary and he’s getting remarried,” Agbaria said. “He’s not coming back.”

Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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