- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

TEL AVIV — Al Qaeda cells are operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview published yesterday.

The Israeli Defense Ministry told The Washington Times it had detected members of the terrorist group entering Gaza through the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border, which was opened in November under pressure from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Mr. Abbas was quoted in the London-based Arabic-language newspaper el-Hayat as saying he had proof that al Qaeda cells had infiltrated the Palestinian territories and that he was “very concerned” about the development.

According to a Jerusalem Post translation of the interview, Mr. Abbas said, “If they succeeded in infiltrating in such a way, and if no one watches over them, the result could be disastrous for the entire region.

“The last piece of information I received on the subject was three days ago, but we still have not been able to lay our hands on the operatives,” he said.

The Jerusalem Post also quoted a senior Palestinian source as saying that Palestinian security forces had located several operatives spreading al Qaeda ideology and had arrested one such extremist in Gaza.

But at a press conference yesterday with Israeli Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, Mr. Abbas said only that he was worried about the al Qaeda threat.

“We have unconfirmed reports that al Qaeda, since it sent its members to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, may also send its members to us for the purposes of sabotage,” he said.

“Our forces are trying with all available means to prevent them from arriving to carry out terrorist acts in this region.”

Israel’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, provided a statement to The Times saying al Qaeda operatives had been detected entering Gaza through the Rafah crossing, which was opened in November after protracted negotiations following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

“Israel is not satisfied with the way in which the [Rafah] terminal functions,” the ministry said. “We know of individuals on our black list who succeeded in getting through, including members of al Qaeda.

“The Palestinians are not living up to their obligations. They are not supervising the crossing point and not relaying data which enables effective identification of individuals going through the terminal. The developments there are very distressing.”

A Hamas spokesman told the Jerusalem Post his organization has no intelligence regarding al Qaeda cells in the West Bank or Gaza, but, “If the things [Mr. Abbas] said are true, then the matter must be handled immediately.”

The deal to open the Rafah crossing was concluded in mid-November only after the personal intervention of Miss Rice, who postponed a trip to Asia to help end a two-month Israeli blockade of travelers and commercial goods into the Gaza Strip.

“For the first time since 1967, the Palestinians will gain control over entry and exit from their territory. … This agreement is a good step forward,” Miss Rice said at the time.

Amid high hopes that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza would yield a peace dividend, she said, “I think everybody recognizes that if the Palestinian people can move more freely, if they can export their agricultural products, if they can work, that the Gaza is going to be a much better place.”

However, the border opening has been controversial in Israel, where Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has been harshly criticized by the Knesset committee on security and foreign affairs.

Incensed at learning the crossing agreement had not been signed by the parties to the agreement, committee chairman Yuval Steinitz reportedly called Mr. Mofaz “a liar” and said, “In some democracies, this would be considered a criminal felony.”

Conservative Israeli politicians, notably former ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold, also have complained that the opening of the Rafah crossing posed a dire security threat to Israel. With Israeli elections just weeks away, the Likud Party has built its campaign around criticism of the Gaza pullout.

Under the crossing agreement, Palestinian Authority personnel operate the Rafah terminal while European Union officials supervise human traffic. There are no Israelis present but Defense Ministry personnel watch on closed-circuit TV from a control room at Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, nearly 10 miles away.

Efraim Halevy, a former director of the Mossad intelligence service, deplored the fact that the EU monitors have not been effective in stopping the passage of terrorists and contraband through the crossing.

U.S. Lt. Gen. Keith W. Dayton, who coordinates security issues with the Israelis and Palestinians, gave a more upbeat assessment of the Rafah crossing at a congressional hearing in Washington yesterday.

“Even my Israeli colleagues would tell you that [the European monitors] are not doing as badly as they are kind of reported as doing,” he said. “Rafah may actually be something that in the future we will look at and say we worked this out pretty well.”

David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this report.

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