Israeli citizens gone to fight with Islamic State, perhaps a total of 50 in four years. Far fewer still have made it back to Israel to tell their tale.
Among that handful is Sabareen Zbeidt, aged 30, and her husband, Wissam, aged 42, who flew back to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport last month with their three children – aged between three and eight – in the knowledge, they would face long sentences in jail.
Their return marked the end of a year-long journey through the brutalities and poverty of Isis’s self-proclaimed caliphate in both Syria and Iraq, where Wissam fought with the group while Sabareen monitored security cameras in a hospital.
Disillusioned, and with Wissam wounded in the leg in fighting against the Iraqi army, they were finally persuaded by their family to come home. At the 10th attempt to cross the dangerous border with Turkey, they finally made it out of Syria with people smugglers paid for by Sabareen’s father – and with the youngest daughter drugged to keep her quiet. On 22 September they flew back to Israel – and immediate arrest.
A housewife and a furniture upholsterer, Sabareen and Wissam both came from families that were Hebrew-speaking, professional and middle class – far, far removed from the world of the radical Islam espoused by Isis. Their decisions have come as a profound shock and source of shame to their families, which alerted Israeli security services to the fact that their relatives had gone to join the “caliphate”.
Even among Sabareen’s closest family members who worked so hard to bring them back, there was little sympathy for the jail time the couple is now facing.
“Every person with a head on his shoulders knows it is better to be in hell here, than in paradise [with Isis],” one close member of the family told the Guardian bitterly the day after the couple appeared in court in Haifa, charged with joining an “enemy organization”.
The story that Israel’s “Isis family” told their interrogators has cast a light not only on their own radicalisation and harsh experiences with the jihadist group but on the wider phenomenon of Isis jihadis with Israeli citizenship – one of the least represented groups in Isis. It has raised many questions too for their relatives, not least how it was possible for the Zbeidts to radicalize online and – undetected by Israel’s security services or close relatives – make the contacts necessary to arrange their passage to the Islamists’ Syrian capital, Raqqa.
According to the indictment, the couple told investigators that they left Israel on 16 June last year to visit relatives in Romania, then traveled to Turkey where, via social media, they had already made contact with another Israeli national from the town of Umm-al-Fahm who had joined Isis in 2013. Handing their Israeli passports to the Isis contact who met them at the Syrian border, they were taken to Raqqa first. There, Wissam was separated from Sabareen and his children and sent to a training camp in Iraq before being sent to Mosul where he was injured in the leg during a raid on an Iraqi military outpost.
Sabareen’s family, who live in a large village outside the Israeli-Arab city of Sakhnin which includes a retired Israeli police officer and a teacher – say they are ashamed and angry at what their relative has done. In interviews with the Guardian, they described how Sabareen made a night-time departure from Romania where she and her family were visiting her brother, who was then completing his medical studies.
“Two of her brothers were sleeping in a room,” the family member recalled asking for anonymity before speaking. “She shook him and told him she was leaving ‘for Iraq’.” Still half asleep, her family says, her brother did not fully understand what she was saying until it was too late.
Sabareen’s relatives do not, however, dispute most of what was in a statement from Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, or the indictment, describing the details alleged as “99% correct”. Furious and ashamed at the couple’s actions, they talked of their bafflement at how the couple’s online activities and contacts with Isis were missed by Israel’s famously attentive security services.
“We have so many questions about what happened,” explained the relative. “Why weren’t they noticed and stopped? We still don’t know what was on their minds, what they planned, or who sent them. It’s no secret but after they went missing, once we understood, we informed the authorities.”
One clue has been supplied in an interview that appeared on Israeli news website Ynet with another member of Sabareen’s family, who suggested that it was the older Wissam who pressured Sabareen to join Isis with her children. Declining to confirm this, the relative who spoke to the Guardian added only that the family would “shut the door” to Wissam should he ever be released.
“He is a furniture upholsterer,” he added. “He had a very good business. He always used to boast how he had clients who were [Israeli] security people.
But Sabareen also seemed an unlikely candidate for Isis, recalled family members – she was not overly religious and shown little interest in events in Syria and Iraq. “When I saw her yesterday on television in the court, fully veiled, I thought: since when does she do that?” the family member said.
“Maybe they thought it would be an adventure. Maybe they wanted to be famous or thought in 100 years they would be remembered by history. Who did she think she was going to free in Syria? Who was she going to free in Iraq?
“We are we are people who don’t make problems,” the relative added. “We are loyal to this country. They should be in prison for what they have done.”
Equally worrying for Israel’s authorities is the fact that the Zbeidt case is the third in a month to come to court following the arrest and indictment of six residents of east Jerusalem who had allegedly set up an Isis-inspired study group and planned to reach join Isis in Syria or Egypt.
But if Zbeidt’s motivations for traveling to join Isis remain obscure, what is clear is their reasons for returning, described by the couple to their interrogators and recounted in the Shin Bet statement that accompanied their charging. “At the start of the current year,” the statement read, “the family members suffered a heavy bombardment that caused widespread destruction and heavy casualties in their area of residence. The children developed anxieties as a result.
“Many details were also learned about the harsh routine under Daesh [Isis] rule. For example, the administration enacted discriminatory laws against women and used brutal methods of punishment such as the amputation of limbs, lashings, and beheadings. A “morality police” enforced dress codes for women and regarding the length of men’s beards. Daesh approved trafficking in Yazidi women for housework and for sex. Children as young as eight undergo military training.”
The Zbeidts children are being cared for by Sabareen’s parents. “We are so happy to have the children back and safe,” the relative added. “But as for the parents, it is almost as if we are in mourning. Not just the family, but the whole village. We don’t want this kind of people. If they had died there, it would have been less shameful for us.”