AL-QAEDA has established a foothold in Palestine with a new militant group based in Gaza formed by extremists who have become disillusioned with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Amid the biggest flare-up of violence in Gaza since a ceasefire was declared three months ago by Palestinians and Israelis, the Jerusalem Post has quoted unnamed Palestinian Authority security officials as saying that a new group called Jundallah or 'Allah's Brigade' had links to the terrorist organisation headed by Osama bin Laden.
The new terror group consists mainly of former Hamas and Islamic Jihad members who believe these two militant groups have become too moderate. It has close ties to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
Khaled Abu Toameh, a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, Israel's oldest and most respected English-language daily, has interviewed PA officials who said the establishment of Jundallah confirmed suspicions that al-Qaeda was attempting to gain a foothold in Gaza ahead of the planned Israeli withdrawal beginning on August 15.
Israel is to evacuate all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four of 120 in the West Bank under prime minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.
The PA officials were quoted as saying that Jundallah gunmen launched their first attack on Israeli soldiers near Rafah in Gaza last week. Four soldiers were wounded in the incident. Abu Abdullah al-Khattab, who identified himself as the spokesman for Jundallah in Gaza, denied his group was linked to al-Qaeda but hinted that as well as Israeli targets, the group was planning to target US interests in the region.
"Our people will not remain idle in the face of American crimes in Muslim countries," he said. "Soon everyone will see operations [against the US] that will make all the Muslims delighted." He also said Jundallah would not honour any unofficial truce with Israel.
But on the record, PA officials were yesterday reluctant to confirm links between Jundallah and al-Qaeda, with senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, casting doubt on ties. "It is very unlikely that al-Qaeda would be operating in Gaza," he told the Scotland on Sunday.
A spokesman for the Palestinian interior minister, Nasser Youssef, said he could not comment on the report.
But analysts say public confirmation of al-Qaeda links would place the PA in a difficult position since it would mean they would face even greater international pressure to take action against militants who are also closely tied to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
As well as confronting the possibility of violent protests from Jewish settlers who refuse to leave, Israeli officials fear Palestinian militants will step up violence in the lead-up and during the pullout.
The emergence of a new militant group in Gaza, especially one with reported links to al-Qaeda, was not surprising, said Ra'anan Gissin, an aide to prime minister Sharon.
"There is some evidence of links between militants in Gaza and al-Qaeda," he told the Scotland on Sunday. "We are watching and following such developments very closely but for us, local terrorist groups are just as dangerous."
It is not the first time al-Qaeda's name has been connected with Palestinian militants. In February 2003, an Israeli military court sentenced a Palestinian man to 27 years in prison for training in Afghanistan with bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
A member of Hamas, Nabil Oukal was arrested in 2000 and allegedly told Israeli interrogators he was recruited by al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan to form a network in the Palestinian territories.
"While this information about Jundallah has yet to be confirmed, there's no doubt that al-Qaeda has tried and continues to try and recruit members of other organisations such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad," said Dr Ely Karmon, a senior researcher in international terrorism at Israel's International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
"It is a great concern for Israel if al-Qaeda does get a foothold in the Palestinian territories since with al-Qaeda, all bets are off. Unlike Hamas and other local groups who face direct consequences once they carry out a terrorist operation, al-Qaeda are ready to sacrifice many Muslims to further their cause."
In the meantime, both Palestinian and Israeli officials yesterday stressed they would do what they could to maintain the fragile ceasefire after Israeli forces killed a Palestinian gunman during an assault on the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in Gaza on Friday.
The violence occurred within hours of Israel's defence chief ordering the army to use "all necessary means" to stop militants firing a barrage of mortars and rockets at Israeli targets.
Following the clash, Israeli soldiers prevented dozens of Jewish settlers marching into the neighbouring village of Dir al-Balah where the attack had originated, to protest the shelling.
Hamas claimed joint responsibility along with the Fatah-linked al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Popular Resistance Committees for Friday's attack.
Hamas said it remained committed to the ceasefire but was avenging the deaths of two of its fighters in the Gaza Strip last week. "We are doing whatever we can do to sustain the ceasefire," Erekat said.
Israeli officials believe the surge in violence is part of Hamas's strategy directly to challenge the moderate president Abbas in the run-up to his meeting on Thursday with President George Bush in Washington.
Gissin also said Israel had no intention of "escalating the current situation but the Palestinian Authority must understand it is up to them to end the violence".