TEL AVIV – Al-Qaida members are in the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip after infiltrating while the border with Egypt was opened two weeks ago, Israel’s military intelligence chief announced today.

“Al-Qaida operatives took advantage of the opened Rafah border [with Egypt] and entered Gaza,” Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi Farkash, chief of intelligence for the Israeli Defense Forces, said this morning during a university lecture in Tel Aviv.

Farkash added al-Qaida’s interest in attacking Israel recently has increased.

Farkash’s comments immediately were reported by the Israeli and international media. But WorldNetDaily exclusively broke the same story last week, when senior Israeli intelligence officials associated with Farkash told WND the global jihad group entered Gaza during the collapse in Egypt-Gaza border security after Israel withdrew its troops from the area Sept. 12.

“Militants linked to Hezbollah, al-Qaida and other international terror groups are now very likely in Gaza,” a senior security official told WND last week. “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.”

Following Israel’s withdrawal, Gaza’s border with Egypt was wide open, with thousands of Palestinians – including known terrorists – passing freely from one side to the other for a period of at least six days.

Egyptian officials attempted to close the border several times, but Hamas and other terror groups managed to reopen the crossing, once using a controlled explosion along the border fence and another time ramming a dump truck through the border wall.

Palestinian officials admitted to reporters 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, but denied al-Qaida was present.

“These reports are baseless,” Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb 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 Palestinian Authority 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.”

The worry al-Qaida agents made it to Gaza is especially poignant, Israeli security officials say, 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 last week 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.

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 said, can be emphasized through Palestinian cleric Abdullah Azzam, who was al-Qaida’s ideologue and until his death, Osama bin Laden’s spiritual mentor.

“We found Azzam’s picture on Hamas posters from Gaza and a lot of Hamas material,” Erlich told WND. “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.

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