Friday, February 29, 2008

Qaeda Sympathizers Are Said To Be Gathering in Gaza

ELI LAKE - Staff Reporter of the Sun
February 28, 2008

WASHINGTON — Groups sympathetic to Al Qaeda are amassing in Gaza, according to both the president of the Palestinian Authority and Israel's top military intelligence general.

In an interview published yesterday in one of the Arab world's leading newspapers, Al-Hayat, Mahmoud Abbas went so far as to accuse Hamas — his political rivals who are now running Gaza — of facilitating Al Qaeda's presence there. "I can say without doubt that Al Qaeda is present in the Palestinian territories and that this presence — especially in Gaza — is facilitated by Hamas," the paper quoted him as saying.On Tuesday, the chief of the Israel Defense Force's military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, told the Knesset's Committee on National Security and Foreign Affairs that Al Qaeda had sent operatives into Gaza from the smuggling routes in the Sinai.

An Israeli diplomat Wednesday confirmed the Israeli press reports of Mr. Yadlin's briefing. "There is emphasis on groups self-identified with Al Qaeda," he said. "It means there are jihadist elements, and they are loosely affiliated, but they are not from Afghanistan or Pakistan, the hard-core Al Qaeda."

Since 2005, Israeli leaders and even Palestinian Arab officials have warned that Al Qaeda has been trying to establish itself in the Palestinian territories. But the threat from Al Qaeda has come into greater focus for the Jewish state in the last week in light of Hamas's plan to hold a demonstration at the border between the walled-off territory and pre-1967 Israel. The demonstration, scheduled originally for Monday, was called off. But Israeli officials fear it will be an attempt to dismantle the wall that separates the two territories and allow terrorists to infiltrate the tiny country.

Yesterday, Hamas escalated the firing of Kassam rockets into southern Israel as Israeli officials promised an "unprecedented response" to what it said was an escalation. Earlier yesterday, Israeli helicopters led a raid on the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry in Gaza, where early reports said 11 people were slain, including a baby. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rice is scheduled to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority next week.

The vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross yesterday said he believed part of Mr. Abbas's interview in Al-Hayat. "There are two parts to this," he said. "One, is there an Al Qaeda presence in Gaza? This is something we have seen since September 2005. You have had Hamas spokesmen say this then. The question, of course, is Abbas's claim that Hamas is helping Qaeda infiltrate Gaza."

Mr. Gartenstein-Ross said yesterday that he doubted Hamas would be supporting Al Qaeda. "The backdrop here is that there has been a war of words going on between Hamas and Al Qaeda for some time." He added that Al Qaeda's no. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri "has released multiple tapes blasting Hamas. Initially, Al Qaeda seemed to be concerned that they would negotiate. Al Qaeda took Hamas and their words more seriously than the United States or anyone else did."

In a tape last March, Mr. Zawahri blasted Hamas for agreeing in Mecca to a power-sharing arrangement with the Fatah Party, a deal that has since dissolved after Hamas fighters seized the government in Gaza in June through a coup. "Hamas has made a mockery of Muslims' minds and feelings by saying that the accord reached in Mecca respects international agreements," Mr. Zawahri said at the time.

Hamas for its part yesterday denied the charge from Mr. Abbas. A spokesman told the Times of London that there was no truth in the allegation. But Israeli officials yesterday said they have had their own concerns about Al Qaeda's plans for Gaza in particular.

Last December, Osama bin Laden promised to focus his organization in the coming year on the Palestinian Arab territories.

Most Al Qaeda watchers now agree that Qaeda has adopted a franchise model for the organization, meaning that fellow travelers can quickly learn terrorist skills and be accepted into the organization without physically traveling to its main base of operations in the provinces of Pakistan that border Afghanistan.

The concern about outside groups coming into Gaza from Egypt is also shared by the new U.N. special representative to the Middle East peace negotiations, Robert Serry. "Reports of smuggling continue to be of concern, as are reports of outside militant groups now gaining foothold in Gaza," he told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.

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