Israel's domestic intelligence agency has announced a series of arrests of Arab-Israeli men from Nazareth – the home town of Jesus – after they reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) and plotted attacks in Israel, according to multiple reports from news sources inside and outside of the Jewish state.
All of the men were young Arabs, but citizens of Israel, a spokesman for the intelligence agency Shin Bet said in a statement Dec. 8. The men were reportedly training with military style firearms, meeting in secret and preparing for jihad against "infidels."
When the first group of men, two aged 18 and the others 22, 23 and 27, was arrested, they reportedly told investigators they had trained for an attack "while becoming more devout during meetings they held."
Agents with Shin Bet reportedly seized two automatic rifles the men had used for target practice just outside of the city. All of the men were charged with possessing the weapons illegally and supporting an illegal organization. ISIS was declared an illegal organization by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon last year.
On Dec. 24, Shin Bet also announced the arrests of two cousins from the Nazareth area, also on charges that they were supportive of ISIS. That brings the total of those arrested for supporting ISIS to at least seven in the storied town. But as many as 40 residents of the town and its surrounding environs have fled Israel to fight for ISIS in Syria, the Jerusalem Post claimed.
The Daily Beast reported the Christians in the area now see the rise of ISIS sympathizers as another indication that Christianity is being squeezed between strains of Jewish and Islamic extremism and out of its historic homeland. In August, several Christian churches in Nazareth were burned by Jewish extremists. Benzi Gopstein, leader of the right-wing Jewish organization Lehava, said the firing of the churches was justified.
Still, it is likely ISIS sympathizers who pose the greatest risk to both Jew and Christian in Nazareth. According to The Daily Beast, Muslims comprise some 70 percent of Nazareth, making it Israel's largest city with a majority Arab population. It is here that ISIS's popularity has increased.
According to Shin Bet's statement on Christmas Eve, Muhammad Bader Hassan, 20, and Ahmed Sa'adiya, 23, both traveled to Turkey last May to join ISIS. According to the intelligence agency's report, the returned when the met Syrian refugees who spoke of difficult conditions in the country. The two men returned to Israel but remained in contact with ISIS operatives and planned to attack a military transportation hub. They were arrested in late November.
The problem, however, has been simmering under the surface for at least a year. Israeli television reported the appearance of ISIS's black flag in both Nazareth and Akko in August 2014. Nazareth's Mayor Ali Salam said anyone who reported seeing the flag or sent a picture of an ISIS flag in Nazareth was a "deceiver and a liar."
In January 2015, another seven Israeli-Arabs were arrested for working with ISIS to plot attacks on Israel. One of those was a lawyer from Nazareth.
This article was originally published in Christian Examiner.