A court in Ashkelon on Sunday extended the detention of two of three Palestinians suspected of belonging to an al-Qaida cell said to have been planning to bomb targets in Israel.
On Wednesday, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) said arrests had been made of two Palestinians from east Jerusalem who were allegedly planning to carry out attacks for al-Qaida, including on the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, with the help of foreign suicide bombers posing as Russian tourists.
The men were recruited by another al-Qaida agent in the Gaza Strip, said the Shin Bet, the second Israeli report in as many months suggesting the militant network was taking root among Palestinians.
Hamas Islamists governing Gaza rejected the spy agency's account as "silly fabrications", saying it was an attempt to justify Israeli military strikes in the Palestinian territory.
The Shin Bet said a third Palestinian, from the West Bank city of Jenin, was in custody on suspicion of planning to set up an al-Qaida cell in his area. Two of the detainees were arrested last month and the third this month, it said.
The Shin Bet identified the suspects in custody as Khalil Abu Sara, Ala Anam and Rubin Abu Nagma.
Security experts say al-Qaida and its global agenda have had only a fringe appeal among Palestinians as they pursue a more nationalist conflict with Israel.
Shin Bet said the two suspects from east Jerusalem planned to provide bomb vests to foreign militants posing as Russian tourists for attacks on an Israeli convention center in Jerusalem and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. It said they also planned to kidnap a soldier and attack an Israeli bus in the West Bank.
The pair, who could travel freely in Israel because of their Jerusalem residency, were recruited over Facebook and Skype, Shin Bet said in a statement. It said one of the men was arrested as he prepared to travel to Syria, via Turkey, to undergo weapons training.
Shin Bet did not say if the Palestinians had lawyers or how they might plead in open court. Civil rights groups have often accused the Shin Bet of using duress against terrorism suspects.
US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said: "Obviously we have been in contact with the Israeli government regarding these threats... The US Embassy was not just the target, but other targets were mentioned, I believe."
Suspected al-Qaida cell member Khalil Abu Sara enters Ashkelon court room.