The Islamic State’s (IS) highly publicized advances across Iraq and Syria have increased concerns whether other Middle Eastern states will be next. IS has already begun to conduct operations in Lebanon, is on the Turkish and Jordanian borders, and has garnered support from Yemen and several North African jihadist factions. Concerns over the group’s proliferation have forced regional states to heighten their security and modify their national defense doctrines. American-led military action against the group, including the participation of several Arab states in Syria, prompted IS to threaten those who oppose it. But despite the intense focus on IS and the counteraction against it, Israel and the Palestinians have largely avoided being included in the IS story. While this may have largely gone unnoticed, there are several important and fundamental factors that have and likely will continue to limit an IS threat to Israel.
The first of these factors is geography. IS has yet to establish zones of operations on Israel’s borders. Its forces are concentrated in western and northern Iraq, and northern and eastern Syria. Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra is holding territory on Syria’s border with Israel on the Golan Heights, which is of course a concern for Israel, but those forces are feuding with IS and busy holding off repeated Syrian government assaults to retake the border. IS militants are increasingly launching raids in eastern Lebanon, yet the Lebanese border with Israel is Hezbollah’s turf. In Egypt, there are concerns of possible IS links with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the most prominent jihadist faction in the Sinai Peninsula. Still, these links seem indirect at this time. Moreover, al-Maqdis’ focus is expanding an insurgency against the Egyptian government. The jihad against Israel now appears to have become secondary. In Jordan, action is being taken to root out IS supporters from the inside and bolster border defenses. In addition to the kingdom’s security forces being more capable in comparison to many of its Arab neighbors, the US will also continue to support Amman in reducing the IS threat. In short, these factors, at present, mitigate the threat of conventional IS advances on Israel’s borders.
While IS is surely opposed to a Jewish state in the Middle East, Israel is an objective for a later stage. IS is a Sunni Islamist caliphate movement, aiming to control the entire Muslim world. In doing so, the group is operating with clearly defined goals. At present, IS aims to defeat sectarian rivals and all opposition to its rule inside its operational territory. This includes deliberate operations against Christians, opposing Sunni Arab tribesmen, Shiites, Yazidis, Shabaks, Alawites, and Kurdish nationalists, while taking on other radical Sunni jihadist militant factions, like those linked to al-Qaeda. Most importantly, the chief goal of IS at this time is Baghdad and defeating the Shiite-led government in power there. War against Israel does not further that goal.
IS is, however, certainly interested in proliferating its version of Islam and attracting like-minded groups to join its cause. This is evident from their propaganda, a number of pledges of support from regional jihadist groups, and extensive use of foreign fighters. A number of Israeli Arabs have enlisted to join IS, and it is safe to assume recruits have also come from the Palestinian territories. Yet within the Palestinian sphere, there are clear obstacles to further IS entrenchment. The Palestinians, at this time, remain overwhelmingly supportive of their nationalist cause. IS on the other hand is anti-nationalist. Additionally, radical Islamist Palestinian factions combat Israel through a religious nationalist narrative. This means defeating Israel. The groups leading this charge are familiar: Hamas, Fatah, and the Islamic Jihad. Palestinian support for these factions is solid and will likely remain so in the coming years. A number of small Salafist jihadist Palestinian factions have indeed emerged in Gaza. But while they may share more ideological and religious similarities to IS, they are inferior in terms of firepower and support. Furthermore, the growth of IS or similar groups in the Palestinian territories threaten the influence of existing Palestinian factions. These factions are competing amongst themselves, yet in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Hamas and Fatah will likely continue to act to limit the growth of groups with perceived similarities with IS and al-Qaeda.
So will the Israelis. The presence of the Israeli army in the West Bank has for years limited the overall threat of organized militancy there. Israel conducts daily operations and nighttime raids to gather intelligence and detain those suspected of aiming to destabilize the West Bank or launch attacks against Israel. The same measures taken to limit Hamas’ growth in the West Bank will also apply to any IS-like faction. Moreover and as long as security cooperation between Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank persists, Israel’s actions against these groups will be supported in Ramallah.
All of these factors mentioned above have and will likely continue to hinder the IS threat to Israel over the medium term. However, Israel will likely remain cognizant of those aiming to join the movement or conduct individual attacks with its perceived blessing. Even so, most of those joining the group will likely find themselves in Syria or Iraq, because Baghdad remains the greatest target at this time.