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JERUSALEM – Israel has information al-Qaida-linked members likely infiltrated the Gaza Strip while its border with Egypt was opened last week, senior security officials told WND.

“Militants linked to Hezbollah, al-Qaida and other international terror groups are now very likely in Gaza,” said a senior security official. “The groups had set up bases in the Sinai that are still functioning, and we have information indicating members managed to get inside Gaza. These are people with advanced knowledge in specific kinds of deadly attacks and explosions.”

Palestinians officials denied the claim.

The Israeli statements also were made by Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, who said, “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,” referring to terrorists crossing into Gaza.

In line with internationally backed agreements, 750 Egyptian troops deployed along the Egypt-Gaza border earlier this week to monitor the flow of traffic and halt weapons smuggling in the area. But for most of last week, following Israel’s withdrawal of its last military installations from Gaza, the border with Egypt was wide open, with thousands of Palestinians – including known terrorists – passing freely from one side to the other.

Palestinian officials admitted terror groups were able to smuggle tons of weapons into Gaza, including explosives, ammunition and rocket propelled grenades that had long been stockpiled in Sinai.

The worry al-Qaida agents made it to Gaza is especially poignant, security officials point out, because 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, “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 terrorists they say are now in Gaza will try to direct operatives from Sinai into the Negev to make their way into the West Bank’s Palestinian population centers.

Israeli border police the past few days arrested more than 35 Palestinian residents of Gaza attempting to infiltrate the Israeli Negev along the Egypt border.

“The concern is great these international groups will use Gaza as their forward base to stage attacks against Israel, including the large-scale style of attacks al-Qaida is famous for,” said a security official.

Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat this morning denied al-Qaida was in Gaza.

“These reports are baseless,” Erekat told WND. “Egypt did a good job in cracking down on cells in their country and they wouldn’t have allowed any al-Qaida people to get into Gaza.”

An aide to PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei told WND on condition of anonymity, “it would certainly be against our interests to say al-Qaida was in our territory.”

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 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 was 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.

Related stories:

Israel fears al-Qaida infiltration

Zarqawi setting up bases in Jordan, Gaza Strip?

Al-Qaida’s next base Jewish homes?

In Israel’s vacuum, al-Qaida moves in to Gaza

PA official: There is no Egypt-Gaza border

Evidence: Al-Qaida rocket attack in Gaza false

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