RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian security officials on Thursday cast doubt on Israel's claim that it broke up an al-Qaida plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, alleging Israel concocted the story to bolster its position in peace talks.
Israel's Shin Bet security agency says it arrested three Palestinian men — two from Israeli-controlled east Jerusalem and one from the West Bank — over the plot.
It said those arrested admitted to planning a suicide bombing at the embassy and other attacks. It said they received their instructions over the Internet through a handler in the Gaza Strip who had direct ties to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Adnan Damiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian security services in the West Bank, said there is "no indication" that al-Qaida has a presence in the territory.
"Al-Qaida cannot operate here," Damiri said. "It needs broad logistical support and that cannot be here in this small area."
He said Israel had arrested some naive "boys" and claimed they were al-Qaida to halt American pressure to show more flexibility in peace talks. Israel has demanded it retain a presence in parts of the Palestinian-claimed West Bank after any future peace deal due to security concerns.
One of the suspects was identified as Ala Ghannam, 21, from Aqaba, a village near the northern West Bank town of Jenin. His cousin, Arafat Ghannam, told The Associated Press that the 21 year old was arrested by the Israeli military two and half weeks ago in a night raid.
He said Palestinian intelligence forces had arrested him just a week before and had let him go. The Palestinians arrested him because of "Islamic views" he expressed on Facebook, the cousin said without elaborating. He said the family was not aware about his alleged interest in al-Qaida but said they were not shocked to hear about it.
Israeli security officials long have warned of the threat of what they call "global jihad," a word they use for various militant groups in the Gaza Strip and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula inspired by al-Qaida's ideology and tactics. But Wednesday marked the first time that Israel explicitly accused the group of being behind an attempted attack. Officials believe there are several hundred of these militants, known as Salafists, in Gaza.
The Salafi presence in the West Bank is far more limited. Palestinian security forces recently arrested about 20 young men who allegedly tried to set up a Salafist organization. Officials have described the men as disaffected youths who had no training in weapons or attacks.
Last November, Israeli forces killed three members of that group in a shootout in the city of Hebron. Israeli security officials say there is some cooperation with their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank to keep the Salafis under watch.
In Gaza, the Salafis have emerged as rivals to the ruling Islamic militant Hamas group. A Hamas security official said al-Qaida does not exist in the crowded seaside strip. "Al-Qaida has never fired a single shot to liberate the land," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Adnan Abu Amer, a Gaza expert on Islamic movements, said there are groups in the area inspired by al-Qaida "but we haven't found any direct links."
Aviv Oreg, a former head of the Israeli military unit that tracks al-Qaida, said that if the group was indeed behind the plot, it would create a "whole new ballgame" since it would show new capabilities inside Israel's borders.
U.S. officials have said little about Israel's claims, only that they could not corroborate the information and that no new security measures were immediately taken at the embassy.
Barzak reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writers Mohammed Ballas in Jenin, West Bank, and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed reporting.