TEL AVIV, Israel – Several members of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network have infiltrated the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and are working with Hezbollah to target Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday.
While the Bush administration has drawn a distinction between the U.S.-led campaign against Al Qaeda and the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians, Sharon's government has sought to portray them as linked, but has not provided any solid evidence.
"We have information for some time now that Al Qaeda people have entered," Sharon said at a news conference.
"The information says that a small number entered the Gaza Strip. We know they are in Lebanon in close cooperation with Hezbollah. We know they are in the region. There's no doubt that Israel is a target for an attack."
U.S. officials fear moderate Muslim nations could be discouraged from assisting the United States in tracking down Al Qaeda members if Israel gets openly involved. Analysts say that may be exactly what Al Qaeda wants.
The line was blurred after twin attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya last week were linked to Al Qaeda or its affiliates.
Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, warned this week that bin Laden is sending instructions to Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
On the same day as the attacks in Kenya, two Palestinian gunmen opened fire outside a Likud Party office and at a nearby bus terminal in the northern Israeli town of Beit Shean. Six Israelis were killed and dozens wounded.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the Beit Shean attack. It said it was avenging the deaths of two militia leaders in an explosion in the Jenin refugee camp. The militia blamed Israel for the blast, but Israel has denied any involvement.
Last February, Israel's then-defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, said fleeing Al Qaeda members were getting into southern Lebanon and hooking up with Hezbollah. The leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, dismissed the claims then as "ridiculous."
The Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah guerrilla group plays a major role in Lebanese politics and has been labeled terrorist by the United States.