December 8, 2002Palestinian security forces have arrested a group of Palestinians for collaborating with Israel and posing as operatives of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network, a senior official said yesterday.
The arrests come two days after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon charged al-Qaeda militants were operating in Gaza and in Lebanon.
“The Palestinian Authority arrested a group of collaborators who confessed they were working for Israel, posing as al-Qaeda operatives in the Palestinian territories,” said the official, on condition of anonymity.
He said the alleged collaborators sought to “discredit the Palestinian people, justify every Israeli crime and provide reasons to carry out a new (military) aggression in the Gaza Strip.”
The official did not say how many suspects had been arrested, nor where or when they were nabbed.
Earlier, international cooperation minister Nabil Shaath announced he would hold a press conference here on the alleged presence of al-Qaeda operatives in the Gaza Strip.
Sharon’s announcement marked the first time Israel officially claimed that al-Qaeda, held responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, was operating in the Palestinian territories.
It was considered a surprise because the Gaza Strip is virtually sealed off by Israeli troops.
The hardline Israeli leader also charged other members of the terror group were cooperating with Lebanon’s Shi’ite militia Hizbollah.
The Palestinians slammed the allegation as “totally absurd” and accused Sharon of trying to piggyback on the US-led “war against terrorism” to strengthen his military operations against militants in the territories.
Both the Lebanese government and Hizbollah made similar statements.
A US citizen of Syrian descent was arrested last month at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv on suspicion of transferring funds to terrorist organisations in general, and those connected to al-Qaeda in particular.
Three Israelis and 10 Kenyans were killed in a suicide attack on a hotel near the Kenyan port of Mombasa last Thursday, shortly after missiles narrowly missed an Israeli charter flight taking off from there with 261 passengers.
The attacks were purportedly claimed by al-Qaeda on an Islamic website.
Meanwhile, Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships swept into the Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip yesterday, sparking a gun battle and killing 10 people, Palestinian witnesses and medics said.
Army officials said the troops had met fierce resistance in the three-hour pre-dawn incursion, which it said was intended to root out militants responsible for attacks on troops in Gaza in a more than two-year Palestinian uprising for independence.
Officials from the Palestinian Authority have accused the Israeli spy agency Mossad of setting up a fake al-Qaeda terrorist cell in Gaza. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said that Israel had set up the mock cell in order to justify attacks in Palestinian areas.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, called the allegation “sheer nonsense”.
We are sure that Israel is behind this and that there are absolutely no groups such as al-Qaeda operating here
Colonel Rashid Abu-Shbak
On Thursday Mr Sharon said that members of Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network were at work in the Gaza Strip, aiming to attack Israel.
Israel has named al-Qaeda as the prime suspect in a suicide bombing at a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya that killed 16 people last week and an unsuccessful missile attack on a nearby Israeli passenger jet.
“It is a big, big, big lie to cover (Sharon’s) attacks and his crimes against our people everywhere,” Mr Arafat said at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Colonel Rashid Abu-Shbak, the Palestinian head of preventative security, said eight Palestinians had been approached from outside Gaza, and had been asked by Israeli agents to work for al-Qaeda with offers of money and weapons.
Colonel Abu-Shbak said the first approaches were made in March this year, and that all communications had been traced back to Israeli intelligence.
Al-Qaeda has been blamed for the attacks in Kenya
He cited the case of one Palestinian militant who had been approached and had been supplied with guns, and who was killed on his way to collect a second consignment of weapons.
“We are sure that Israel is behind this and that there are absolutely no groups such as al-Qaeda operating here,” Colonel Abu-Shbak said.
“We can’t say there will never be al-Qaeda here, but at least not for now,” he added.
Mr Gissin said that the Palestinian accusations were propaganda and disinformation put out by officials trying “to exonerate themselves from the allegations they are collaborating and participating with terrorists”.
On Friday American media reported that al-Qaeda has set up a branch to help Palestinian militant groups fight Israel, according to a website US officials believe is linked to the organisation.
The new group has called for an end to inter-Palestinian feuding and has vowed to launch suicide attacks against Israeli and American targets in the Middle East, it said in a statement on the website, mojahedoon.net.
The Washington Post newspaper said United States officials believe the website speaks for al-Qaeda, and that it is being monitored by US intelligence agencies.
The Arabic-language website said al-Qaeda took responsibility for the attacks in Kenya.
The website carried a statement purportedly from the new al-Qaeda branch – the Islamic al-Qaeda in Palestine – pledging allegiance to Osama Bin Laden.
The group said it rejected any peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, declaring it would accept “nothing but the full liberation of the Palestinian land”.