JERUSALEM, AP -Signs are mounting that al-Qaeda terrorists are setting their sights on Israel and the Palestinian territories as their next jihad battleground.
Israel has indicted two West Bank militants for al-Qaeda membership, Egypt arrested operatives trying to cross into Israel and a Palestinian security official has acknowledged al-Qaeda is “organizing cells and gathering supporters.”
Al-Qaeda’s inroads are still preliminary, but officials fear a doomsday scenario if it takes root.
Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon have established contacts with al-Qaeda followers linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to two Israeli officials.
Al-Zarqawi has established footholds in the countries neighboring Israel — Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan — and is interested in bringing his fight to Israel, too, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because Israel does not want to identify those involved in the issue.
Tuesday’s indictment of two militants on charges of belonging to al-Qaeda and receiving funds from the group for a planned double-bombing in Jerusalem was Israel’s most concrete allegation to date linking al-Qaeda to West Bank Palestinians.
The indictment described in detail how the two, Azzam Abu Aladas and Balal Hafnai, met with al-Qaeda operatives in Jordan, arranged for secret e-mail exchanges and received thousands of dollars from al-Qaeda to carry out the attack. The indictment came just three weeks after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the London-based Al Hayat newspaper that al-Qaeda had infiltrated the West Bank and Gaza.
Still, Mideast watchers warned against overstating the al-Qaeda presence because the issue is easily manipulated for political ends.
Israel has a lot to gain by portraying its local conflict with the Palestinians as part of the global war on terror, and Abbas, badly damaged by the recent political rise of Hamas militants, wants “to show that he is needed by the West,” said Israeli security analyst Dan Schueftan.
Both Israeli and Palestinian security officials described al-Qaeda’s activities here as incipient, involving a handful of local militants who reached out to al-Qaeda — often via the Internet — rather than the other way around. A senior Israeli military intelligence official said he believed there were no more than 20 al-Qaeda-linked activists in the Palestinian territories.
Most of them are unhappy with a year-old decision by mainstream Palestinian factions, including Fatah and Hamas, to enforce a cease-fire with Israel, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
Hamas, struggling to avert an international aid boycott in the wake of its Jan. 25 victory in parliamentary elections, is particularly sensitive about being associated with al-Qaeda, despite sharing core beliefs such as the rejection of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
When Ayman-al-Zawahri, al-Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, appeared in a video earlier this month urging Hamas not to renounce its violent struggle, a Hamas official in Gaza shrugged him off.
The Hamas official said the group had no links to any outside group. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying the movement did not want to respond formally to al-Zawahri.
By all accounts, Hamas, set to form the next Palestinian government, is not likely to further harm its international standing by joining forces with al-Qaeda.
But al-Qaeda itself is making an effort “to operate both in the Palestinian territories and inside Israel proper,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. A Palestinian security official in Gaza agreed that al-Qaeda “is in the process of organizing cells and gathering supporters.”
If the group succeeds in establishing a full-blown presence, predicted the Israeli military intelligence official, Israel can expect far larger terror attacks than it has seen in the past.
Another Israeli official said a major concern is al-Qaeda’s activities in Israel’s neighbors, especially Jordan, where al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the November 2005 bombings of three hotels that killed 60 people.
Al-Zarqawi also claimed responsibility for a Dec. 27 barrage of rockets from Lebanon into northern Israel, provoking Israeli airstrikes on a Palestinian base in central Lebanon.
The Israeli official praised Egyptian security forces for their performance following two bombing sprees in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula — one in October 2004 and another in July 2005 — that some have blamed on al-Qaeda.
He said Egyptian forces arrested two sets of suspected al-Qaeda operatives — one a month ago and another three months ago — who were trying to enter Israel through Sinai “most probably carrying explosives.”
An Egyptian police official at the Egypt-Gaza border would not confirm or deny the Israeli’s account, saying, “It’s our job to halt any security violations, that’s what we’ve been always doing, nothing less or more.”
Some Israeli officials have expressed concern that al-Qaeda operatives from Egypt may have entered Gaza after Israel withdrew from the coastal strip last summer.
But Assem Rashed, a former teacher at a Gaza university, said he doubts al-Qaeda could find many backers in Gaza.
“People here are against the attacks in Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. I don’t think they will survive, or find much support from the public,” he said.