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The police and the Shin Bet security service arrested earlier this month three Palestinians from Gaza who had been sent to the West Bank to set up factories for Qassam rockets and mortar shells.

The three were arrested on October 5, but the news was released for publication only yesterday, after the indictments were finalized. The indictments will be submitted to the Be'er Sheva District Court today.

Sharif Ziada, 34, Kamel Issa, 33, and Kazem Dib, 27 are senior operatives of the Popular Resistance Committees, a Gaza organization that broke away from Fatah shortly after the intifada began in September 2000. They were arrested in the Negev after crossing from Gaza to Egypt and then into Israel. Salim Barikat, the Egyptian-Bedouin smuggler who helped them cross, was also arrested.

According to a senior Shin Bet official, the three men were involved in numerous attacks against Israeli targets in Gaza, including some in which Israelis were killed. Ziada, for instance, was involved, among other things, in the Palestinians' first successful bombing of a Merkava tank, which killed three soldiers near Netzarim in February 2002. All three report directly to two members of the Resistance Committees' senior leadership, the official added.

According to the Shin Bet investigation, the three crossed from Gaza into Egypt on October 4 by crawling under the border fence. They were stopped by an Egyptian border patrol, which released them after the men gave them a bribe of NIS 100 and 20 Jordanian dinars.

The suspects then hooked up with a Bedouin smuggling network that took them over the Israeli-Egyptian border south of the Gaza Strip. However, they were spotted by an Israeli police force, which pursued them and captured them south of Mitzpeh Ramon. Ziada, the ringleader, had a loaded pistol in his possession as well as a USB flash memory drive containing instructions for manufacturing bombs and rockets. The files on the device included an instructional film on bomb-making produced by the Lebanese organization Hezbollah.

According to the Shin Bet, the three told their interrogators that their orders were to set up a cell that would manufacture rockets and mortars in the vicinity of Jenin, in the northern West Bank. Later, they were also supposed to plan and organize terror attacks - not only rocket and mortar launches, but also kidnappings of settlers and soldiers. In addition, they were supposed to recruit local operatives, and other operatives were slated to be sent to them from Gaza. Their general orders, they said, were "to commit attacks to shake up the situation."

Palestinian terror organizations have been trying for years to set up Qassam factories in the West Bank. These efforts have increased since Israel withdrew from Gaza. However, the frequent Israel Defense Forces incursions into West Bank cities have thwarted these efforts.

The Popular Resistance Committees receive money and orders from both Hamas and Hezbollah. According to the Shin Bet, Hamas uses the Resistance Committees as a subcontractor when it wants to commit an attack without being identified - such as attacks committed during the current security lull, to which Hamas is officially committed.

MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud), the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, charged that the ease with which the three men crossed from Gaza into Israel via Egypt proved that the Israeli-Egyptian agreement on securing the Gaza-Egyptian border was a "total failure."