Recent charges by the Israeli government that Al Qaeda has infiltrated the occupied territories were met this week by Palestinian countercharges that Israeli intelligence is falsifying bridges between Palestinians and the wide network of groups that have attacked Western interests and United States’ allies, including Israel.
The Palestinian Authority accused the Israeli government of looking for a way to escalate its attacks against the Palestinian people and invade the Gaza Strip after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a meeting of newspaper editors that Al Qaeda members are present in Gaza.
Those Israeli claims are “baseless,” say Palestinian officials. Indeed, the head of Palestinian preventive security in Gaza says his agency has tracked for months Israeli intelligence efforts to recruit Palestinians for a fictitious “Al Qaeda.”
“It is clear to us that agents in Israeli intelligence are intent on recruiting individuals in the Gaza Strip under the illusion that they will be working in the interests of the Al Qaeda organization,” says Colonel Rashid Abu Shibak. The preventive security has been monitoring these efforts for four months, and had already notified a number of foreign intelligence services, including the US Central Intelligence Agency, of the operation, he says.
“After the Israeli prime minister charged that there is an Al Qaeda presence in the Gaza Strip, we were forced to disclose our documents,” Abu Shibak told the Palestine Report. “We submitted everything we have to embassies, consulates, relevant security agencies, and the media, including detailed information that indicates the involvement of Israeli intelligence in this issue.”
Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Nabil Shaath also announced that the Palestinian Authority had submitted documents to Arab and foreign embassies proving the Israeli intelligence connection. The announcement was made just after Israel reported the deportation of a Palestinian-American, Khaled Nazem Diab, 34, for alleged links to Al Qaeda. The United States embassy said it was “not aware” of any such connection.
Beneath the diplomatic struggle to ally with American interests, however, Palestinian officials describe a murky covert operation to play on Palestinian sympathies against Israel and its supporter, the United States.
“Israeli agents contacted Palestinians using Lebanese, Italian and German telephone [numbers] in the beginning, to create a reality that would allow them to implicate the targeted residents,” says Abu Shibak. But the Palestinian Authority found that these international phone numbers were not actual numbers.
In eight instances, says Abu Shibak, men that Palestinians charge were Israeli intelligence agents succeeded in recruiting young Palestinian men into imaginary Al Qaeda cells. In each case, the Israeli agent claimed that he was contacting the recruit on behalf of Al Qaeda, and that his aim was to assist the Palestinian people in continuing the Palestinian uprising. The agents offered weapons and money and in some cases, letters were sent to the recruits bearing the signature of Osama bin Laden urging them to recruit other God-fearing individuals willing to sacrifice.
Once the targets had pledged their membership, suddenly their recruiters began to rely on communications via Israeli cell phone companies, said Abu Shibak, further raising Palestinian suspicions.
A key piece of the evidence collected proving Israeli involvement, say Palestinians, is the testimony of alleged Israeli collaborator Haider Ghanem from Rafah City. Ghanem told Palestinian security officials that Israeli intelligence, or the Shin Bet, entrusted him with delivering weapons and money to isolated locations agreed upon between the Israeli intelligence agents claiming to be Al Qaeda leaders and their recruits.
Palestinian officials are clearly concerned that Al Qaeda could find fertile ground in Palestinian areas, where young angry Palestinians are looking for any means possible to fight Israel. “The young men who responded to the call of the Israeli intelligence agents did so sincerely in the beginning, but they were tricked,” says Abu Shibak. The recruits’ own doubts led them to report the activity to the Preventive Security agency and now all eight of the “recruits” are in Palestinian jails.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat told journalists in his Ramallah headquarters that the Israeli claims are “a big lie.”
“The goal of the Israeli accusations is clear,” says Abu Shibak. “First of all, it is an attempt to frame [us with] alleged Al Qaeda activity in the Gaza Strip and the areas of the Palestinian Authority in order to justify aggression, especially to the Americans, who are very sensitive about the Al Qaeda organization,” he explains.
“The second goal is for Sharon to use all his weapons before the elections on January 28,” said Abu Shibak. “The whole thing is a theatrical performance that serves the propaganda campaign of Sharon.”