Palestinian 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.