By Sophie Claudet - GAZA CITY
A senior Palestinian security official claimed Saturday his services had uncovered an Israeli plot to create a mock Al-Qaeda cell in the Gaza Strip, while an Israeli official dismissed the charge as "absurd".
Gaza head of preventive security Rashid Abu Shbak told journalists at a press conference that Israeli agents, posing as operatives of Osama bin Laden's terrorist group, recruited Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
"Over the past nine months, we've been investigating eight cases in which Israeli intelligence posing as Al-Qaeda operatives recruited Palestinians in the Gaza Strip," said Abu Shbak, referring to a series of e-mails and phone call conversations.
He added that three Palestinians had been detained.
Abu Shbak's revelations came two days after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon charged Al-Qaeda militants were operating in the Gaza Strip and in Lebanon, raising fears of an intensification of Israeli military operations.
A spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry branded the Palestinian claim "ridiculous" and "some kind of propaganda campaign," adding that "the Palestinian territories have become a breeding ground for terrorism.
"There is no need for Israel to make up something like this because (the hardline Islamic movements) Hamas, Islamic Jihad and (Lebanon-based militant group) Hezbollah are all the same as Al-Qaeda," spokesman Gilad Millo said.
"If... Sharon has made these allegations, he must be basing it on some evidence," he also said.
Abu Shbak said three Palestinians used by Israeli intelligence had been arrested, while another 11 were released "because they came and informed us of this Israeli plot."
He poured cold water on the theory that Al-Qaeda was operating in the occupied territories.
"Al-Qaeda doesn't recruit so easily and openly," Abu Shbak said.
The security chief said his services had traced back to Israel cellphone calls and e-mails in which Palestinians were asked to join Al-Qaeda.
He said the calls to the Gaza Strip purportedly came from Germany and Lebanon. One e-mail was even signed bin Laden.
"We investigated the origin of those calls, which used roaming, and messages and found out they all came from Israel," he told journalists.
"The Shin Beth - Israeli internal intelligence - has the means to do whatever it wants."
He said the Palestinians recruited were then paired unbeknownst to them with Israeli collaborators in Gaza.
He said they received money and weapons "although most of these weapons did not even work".
The money was provided by "Palestinian collaborators with Israel" directly to the new recruits or "was transferred from bank accounts in Jerusalem or Israel," Shbak said.
"We are sure that Israel is behind this and that there are absolutely no groups such as Al-Qaeda operating here," the security chief said, adding however "we can't say there will never be Al-Qaeda here, but at least not for now."
But neither did Shbak contest the fact that as many as 11 Palestinians had welcomed the call from Israel to join Al-Qaeda.
"Those who accepted were mostly members of the military wing of Palestinian organizations," he said.
International cooperation minister Nabil Shaath, who also attended the press conference, accused Sharon of trying to piggyback on the US-led 'war against terrorism' to justify "more attacks on the Palestinian people and violence 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 Shiite militia Hezbollah.
The Lebanese government and Hezbollah had also dismissed the accusations.
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.