Early last week, Rashi Abu Sba, head of the preventive security apparatus in Gaza, the equivalent of the Shin Bet, accused the Israeli security service of tricking young Palestinians into conducting missions in the name of Al-Qaida. Last Tuesday, a young man named Ibrahim was presented to reporters in Gaza. Ibrahim hid his face behind a mask, and told what happened to him.

He said that a year ago he sent in a personal, with his photo and phone number, to East Jerusalem's Posta, a cultural-entertainment weekly with a personals section. Three months later, the Gazan received a phone call from an older man, who introduced himself as a merchant named Ahmed, who told Ibrahim that his photo reminded him of his son. They spoke on the phone a number of times, with Ahmed asking Ibrahim about the situation - and if he was a devout Muslim.

During one of the conversations, Ahmed told Ibrahim that he wanted to help Gazans in economic distress and began sending money - cash in dollars and Jordanian dinars - through the Nablus branch of the Cairo-Amman bank. Ibrahim told Ahmed that he had never been arrested nor involved in any political organization. Then, in one of the conversations, Ahmed said he was working for Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida organization, and Ibrahim was meant to be one of its organizers in northern Gaza since the group already had an infrastructure in the south. Ahmed gave Ibrahim a list of people, mostly Hamas activists, and was told to collect information about them and follow them so they could also be drafted for the Al-Qaida cause.

The two never met, but at a certain point during their telephone contact, Ibrahim became suspicious. He contacted a preventive security officer in Gaza and told him the whole story. The officer looked into the matter and told Ibrahim that Ahmed was an Israeli Shin Bet agent, and Ibrahim should immediately cut off any contacts with him.

Palestinian sources said last week that the case was not unusual, and they reported it, as well as similar cases, during a security meeting with top-level U.S. security officials.

Ahmed from the Shin Bet

The incident was revealed against the background of the terror attacks on Israelis three weeks ago in Mombasa, Kenya - the first Al-Qaida operation aimed specifically against an Israeli target after the group had attacked a Jewish target, the synagogue on Jerba Island, off the Tunisian coast. In the wake of the Mombasa attack, Israeli intelligence circles began revealing information about Al-Qaida operatives in Lebanon trying to recruit Gazan Palestinians. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon spoke about it, and hinted that bin Laden is tightening his grip in Lebanon and among Palestinians.

Those hints startled PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and his people. From his office in Ramallah, Arafat told reporters, "Israel's accusations tying Palestinians to Al-Qaida are meant to justify the intensification of attacks against our people." An official Palestinian Authority statement added: "We vehemently deny the Israeli falsehoods about Al-Qaida being in Gaza." This was followed by Abu Sba's revelations about the Ibrahim episode, which, irrespective of the specific case, is common practice among intelligence services worldwide.

The attempt to link Palestinians to Al-Qaida causes real anxiety among Arafat's people. So far, there have only been a few cases of Palestinians involved in international Islamic terrorism. The list of terrorists published by the Americans after 9/11 included Saudis, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Chechnyans, and a few Lebanese, Yemenites, Sudanese, and some from the Gulf. Palestinian spokesmen explained that the Palestinians have enough troubles of their own, and they do not need to waste their energies on a world Islamic revolution.

But there was at least one Palestinian whose name came up - Sheikh Abdullah Azam. Born in 1941 in the village of Silat al Hartiye, near Jenin, he left the West Bank in 1966 to study Islam in Damascus and Cairo. In the 1970s, he took up residence in Amman and taught Islam at Jordan University. His specialty was jihad, and some of the books he wrote on the subject are still available in bookstores in the territories. At some stage, Azam spent a lengthy period of time in the United States, and then was among the first to volunteer to fight alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden was impressed by Azam, even going so far as to call him "my Palestinian mentor" in a number of interviews he gave to television reporters. In 1989, Azam was killed in Afghanistan - the circumstances are unclear - but was not forgotten. Over the years, some of the Hamas cells have called themselves the Sheikh Abdullah Azam Shaheed Brigades.

There are names of a few other Palestinian students who studied in Pakistan, where they became known to bin Laden's people and were recruited into Al-Qaida, One is Nabil Ukal of Gaza, who was caught by the Shin Bet at the Rafah junction two years ago and put on trial. His verdict is expected in the near future.

Taken out of their hands

But Palestinian involvement in Al-Qaida has been the exception to the rule, and the rule is that so far, Palestinian involvement in international Islamic terror has been very marginal. The great fear is that groups spawned by bin Laden's organization could put the Palestinian issue high on their agenda, drawing increasing numbers of Palestinians to their ranks.

That worries both Israel and the Palestinians. The Israeli fear is self-evident. The Palestinian fear needs an explanation. Those worried on the Palestinian side are the elite and the veteran national leadership headed by Arafat. They conducted a decades-long campaign for national liberation, and many Christians were in their ranks. Now they watch with trepidation how Islamic fanatics are taking the campaign out of their hands. It is not merely a question of leadership; it is about the Palestinian agenda: Is the struggle for liberation a secular national or religious-Muslim one? Judging by Arafat's statements and those of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the question is whether the campaign is to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza or to liberate all the holy lands of Palestine, making it a single Islamic wakf. True, Hamas and Al-Qaida so far have different agendas, but bin Laden's growing involvement among Palestinians could change that very quickly.

Nearly all members of PLO and PA institutions were students between the 1950s and 1970s when leftist movements and "revolutionary" regimes flowered in the Arab world. Many studied and trained in the Soviet Union and its allied countries. Like regime leaders in Egypt and in many Arab countries, the Palestinian national leadership has a hard time dealing with the Islamic zealots.

The collapse of the peace process and the violence of the intifada have greatly weakened the Palestinian national leadership. This week in Cairo, the group's representatives plan to renew dialogue with Hamas in a desperate attempt to forge a cease-fire and an end to the terrorist attacks. Weaving connections between Al-Qaida's terrorists and the Palestinian terrorists will not calm the intifada. On the contrary, it will intensify the attacks. Arafat and his people know that, of course. They have enough trouble with Hamas, and they can see where the Islamic fanatics have taken their campaigns elsewhere in the world. The last thing they need is Al-Qaida in Gaza, Ramallah, or anywhere else in the West Bank.