JERUSALEM -- Signs are mounting that Al Qaeda terrorists are setting their sights on Israel and the Palestinian territories as their next jihad battleground.
Israel has indicted two West Bank militants for Al Qaeda membership, Egypt arrested operatives trying to cross into Israel, and a Palestinian security official has acknowledged Al Qaeda is ''organizing cells and gathering supporters."
Al Qaeda's inroads are still preliminary, but officials fear a doomsday scenario if it takes root.
Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Lebanon have established contacts with Al Qaeda followers linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, according to two Israeli officials.
Zarqawi has established footholds in the countries neighboring Israel -- Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan -- and is interested in bringing his fight to Israel, too, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because Israel does not want to identify those involved in the issue.
Tuesday's indictment of two militants on charges of belonging to Al Qaeda and receiving funds from the group for a planned double-bombing in Jerusalem was Israel's most concrete allegation to date linking Al Qaeda to West Bank Palestinians.
The indictment described in detail how the two, Azzam Abu Aladas and Balal Hafnai, met with Al Qaeda operatives in Jordan, arranged for secret e-mail exchanges and received thousands of dollars from Al Qaeda to carry out the attack.
The indictment came just three weeks after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the London-based Al Hayat newspaper that Al Qaeda had infiltrated the West Bank and Gaza.
Still, Mideast watchers warned against overstating the Al Qaeda presence because the issue is easily manipulated for political ends.
Israel has a lot to gain by portraying its local conflict with the Palestinians as part of the global war on terror, and Abbas, badly damaged by the recent political rise of Hamas militants, wants ''to show that he is needed by the West," said Israeli security analyst Dan Schueftan.
Both Israeli and Palestinian security officials described Al Qaeda's activities as incipient, involving a handful of local militants who reached out to Al Qaeda -- often via the Internet -- rather than the other way around.
A senior Israeli military intelligence official said he believed there were no more than 20 Al Qaeda-linked activists in the Palestinian territories.