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JERUSALEM – Israel is worried al-Qaida agents may be using the current security collapse along the Egypt-Gaza border to infiltrate the Gaza Strip from bases inside the Sinai and make their way into the Jewish state to carry out attacks, officials said today.

“We’re talking about Iran, we’re talking elements in Syria, we’re talking about groups like Hezbollah and we’re talking also about international terrorist groups like al-Qaida,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, referring to the possibility of terrorists crossing through the now wide open border.

Four days after Israel removed the last of its troops and military installations from the Gaza Strip, Palestinians continued to flow across the Egyptian border today in spite of numerous promises the area would be closed off by last night.

Yesterday, Hamas members used explosives to blow a hole in a concrete fence that runs along the Egypt border, after first clearing the area to prevent casualties. Neither Egyptian nor Palestinian security forces interfered. Afterward, thousands more Palestinians poured across the border, including known terrorists.

“I’ll admit that right now there is no Egypt-Gaza border; it’s all open wide,” a senior Palestinian official told WND yesterday.

Israeli border police yesterday arrested more than 20 Palestinian residents of Gaza attempting to infiltrate the Israeli Negev along the Egypt border. The Palestinians reportedly told interrogators they exited Gaza through the Philadelphi route, which was perhaps the most heavily guarded road in the Middle East until Israel withdrew its troops from the area Monday and entrusted Egyptian forces with border security.

Israeli security officials say it’s possible al-Qaida agents entered the Jewish state through the Egyptian border. They point out Egypt has had difficulty eliminating al-Qaida cells in the Sinai desert suspected of involvement in recent attacks, including the bombings in Sharm el Sheikh in July and Taba last year, which together killed more than 100 people.

Yaacov Amidror, former chief of research for Israeli military intelligence, told WND today, “We don’t know the exact status of al-Qaida in the Sinai. They have surprised Egypt with attacks, and cells there are very likely still in tact.”

Security officials fear al-Qaida will try to direct operatives from Sinai into the Negev to make their way into the West Bank’s Palestinian population centers.

Analysts long have warned that after Israel carried out its withdrawal, the Gaza Strip could become a safe haven for international terrorists, including al-Qaida.

Amidror previously told WND: “Today, one of the weaknesses of al-Qaida is its lack of a safe haven in the Middle East. The new realities in Gaza will make it one of the most convenient places for al-Qaida to base their global operations. The Gaza Strip will become a paradise because it will be an area in which the population and the terror groups in power, especially Hamas, share the same ideology as al-Qaida.”

Reuven Erlich, director of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at Israel’s Center for Special Studies, stressed the common ideological links between al-Qaida and Hamas, which is now one of the main power brokers in Gaza.

The main link, Erlich told WND, can be emphasized through Palestinian cleric Dr. Abdullah Azzam, who was al-Qaida’s ideologue and until Azzam’s death, Osama bin Laden’s spiritual mentor.

“We found Azzam’s picture on Hamas posters from Gaza and a lot of Hamas’ material,” said Erlich. “Azzam’s portrait in materials reveal that he is perceived by Hamas as one of the four ‘outstanding figures’ of the Islamic ‘struggle’ in Palestine and around the world.”

Al-Qaida several times has claimed a presence in the Gaza Strip.

A group calling itself Jundallah or “Allah’s Brigade” claimed in May it set up shop in Gaza. The new terror group is said to consist mainly of former Hamas and Islamic Jihad members who believe Palestinian terror groups have become too moderate. Jundallah says it has close ties to al-Qaida in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

Palestinian Authority officials told reporters the establishment of Jundallah confirmed suspicions al-Qaida was attempting to gain a foothold in Gaza before Israel carried out its withdrawal.

Also, a Palestinian with Canadian citizenship was arrested in 2003 on suspicion of having been sent by an international jihad group to Israel to direct terror attacks.

In June 2000, the Shin Bet arrested Nabil Ukal, a Palestinian resident of the Gaza Strip, who was convicted of attempting to create an al-Qaida network in Gaza. Ukal reportedly admitted during interrogation to attending Islamic extremist training camps in Afghanistan and was in contact with Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, whom the IDF assassinated last year.

Meanwhile, Israel says the open Egypt-Gaza border has allowed rampant weapons smuggling into Gaza.

With Israel cracking down on smuggling tunnels in the area, the Palestinians have been stockpiling weapons in the Sinai the past few months, unable to transport them into Gaza.

“The Palestinians have been waiting for a chance to bring in the weapons,” said Amidror, “and now with the border wide open, they have their golden opportunity.”

The smuggling the past four days apparently has been so successful the Palestinian media quoted an unnamed arms dealer who said the open borders caused the price of weapons in Gaza to immediately drop. The dealer said the cost of an AK-47 assault rifle is down from $1,980 to about $1,300. Bullets previously priced at 18 shekels a piece, or $4, are now being sold for 3 shekels, or 65 cents, the dealer said.

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