Palestinian security forces arrested 20 Salafists, a senior source said Sunday after a Gaza-based group affiliated with Al-Qaeda confirmed it was operating in the West Bank for the first time.
But the Ramallah-based source denied that any of those arrested in a series of recent raids in the northern part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank had ties to the global jihadist group set up by the late Osama Bin-Laden.
Salafists adhere to a strict version of Islam that they say was practiced in the time of the prophet Mohammed. Some Salafists advocate Al-Qaeda's brand of global jihad while others are not involved in militancy.
"In the last few days, around 20 people were arrested in Nablus, Jenin and Qalqilya," the source told AFP, speaking condition of anonymity and saying those arrested "embrace the Salafist ideology but are not affiliated with Al-Qaeda."
"There are no Al-Qaeda affiliated groups operating in the West Bank, but there are a few Salafist jihadist groups," he said.
His remarks came after the Mujahedeen Shura Council said three Palestinians who were shot dead by Israeli troops in the southern West Bank on November 26 were members, describing them as "the tip of the iceberg."
"By the will of God Almighty, the global jihadist doctrine has reached the bank of pride, the West Bank, planting its foothold after all attempts to thwart its presence," the group said in a statement late Saturday.
It was the first time a group with ties to Al-Qaeda has claimed to be operational in the West Bank, which was seized by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War along with Arab east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
The group, which is known for carrying out rocket attacks on southern Israel from both Gaza and Egypt's Sinai peninsula, also called for a "jihad" against the Western-backed Palestinian Authority which governs the West Bank, describing its leaders as "tyrants who conspired with infidels."
"They have lost as the jihadist doctrine has reached the (West) Bank," it said.
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Last week, Israel's Shin Bet internal security service said the three militants who were killed in Yatta belonged to "a Salafist jihadist network" and were travelling in a car containing guns and explosives.
It said they were planning an attack "against Israeli targets and the Palestinian Authority."
But the Palestinian security official said none of the Salafists arrested in the recent sweep were armed, adding that they were all ex-members of the Islamist Hamas movement which rules Gaza.
"All of them are former members of Hamas and embrace the global Muslim Brotherhood ideology that produces ideologically extreme groups," he said.
"These men are connected locally through technology but are unarmed... They are not members of Al-Qaeda and they don't receive any instructions or weapons from it."
The Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt more than 80 years ago and has branches across the region, has long rejected Al-Qaeda's brand of anti-Western militancy, instead favouring grass-roots political advocacy.
Al-Qaeda has in turn been extremely critical of the Brotherhood's participation in elections, insisting that an Islamic state can only be brought about through violence.
The Mujahedeen Shura Council claimed two rocket attacks from Sinai against the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat in April and August, and it has often fired at southern Israel from Gaza in defiance of a truce, drawing down the wrath of Hamas.
Israel has also hunted down several of its members, killing the group's leader Sheikh Hisham al-Saedini and another Salafist militant in a strike on northern Gaza in October 2012, while another of its militants was killed in a strike on April 30.
The group, whose full name is the Mujahedeen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, also claimed to be behind an attack on an army post on the Israel-Egypt border in June 2012, in which a civilian contractor was killed.
An Islamist group with a similar name also operates in Iraq.