Bin Laden urges Muslims to fight Gaza closure
By Firouz Sedarat
DUBAI (Reuters) - Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has urged Muslims to break the Israeli-led blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and fight Arab governments that deal with the Jewish state, according to an audio recording.
"The duty to break this blockade falls upon our brothers in (Egypt) as they are the only ones that are on the border," bin Laden said in the recording posted on Islamist websites on Sunday.
"Each one of us is responsible for the deaths of our oppressed people in Gaza and dozens upon dozens have died due to this oppressive blockade," he said.
Hamas gunmen blasted open the Rafah border crossing to Egypt for several days early in the year until the Egyptian authorities, reviled by bin Laden for their relations with Israel, moved in troops in February and closed it again.
The authenticity of the recording could not immediately be verified, but the voice sounded like bin Laden's previous tapes.
The recording, probably made days or weeks ago, appeared the day U.S. President George W. Bush ended a visit to the Middle East that he hopes will contribute to an Arab-Israeli peace settlement by the end of his presidency in January.
Bush angered many Arabs by lavishing praise on the Jewish state on its 60th anniversary, hailing it as a "homeland for the chosen people."
Israel, which withdrew settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, sees militant activity on its territory as a threat to Israeli security. It has shut down traffic across its borders, causing severe economic hardship in the overcrowded area ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement.
Bin Laden devoted much of the message to comparing al Qaeda's modern-day jihadists fighting the West to historic Muslim leaders who fought the Crusaders.
The Saudi-born militant said there was no way to free Muslim land, including the Palestinian territories, except by fighting the Jewish state and Muslim governments and leaders who deal with it.
"There is no way to reach Palestine except by fighting the governments and parties that are close to the Jews and move between them and us," bin Laden said.
He said Israel was "very weak ... and full of holes" and could not last without Western support.
Bin Laden has placed growing emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- a central issue for many Arabs and Muslims -- in an apparent effort to widen his support.
Despite calls by al Qaeda supporters for the militant network to establish a presence in Palestinian areas, U.S. intelligence officials say they see no evidence it has done so. Analysts say it faces competition, in particular in Gaza, from the well-established Hamas.
Egypt is attempting to mediate a truce between Israel and Hamas militants who launch frequent missile attacks into Israel from the narrow coastal strip.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put Egyptian mediators and Hamas on notice on Sunday that Israel was fast approaching a decision on possible broader military action in the Gaza Strip to try to curb rocket attacks.
Rockets launched from the Gaza Strip killed two Israelis this month, increasing public pressure on Olmert to take stronger action against militants in the territory, where Israel has mounted deadly air strikes and ground incursions.
Bin Laden also heaped criticism on mainstream Islamist groups such as Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah, which fought a war against Israel in 2006, saying it should not have accepted the presence of international forces in the south of the country.
Al Qaeda has vowed attacks on Jews both inside and outside Israel.
The group is widely blamed for a 2002 suicide attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya and a simultaneous failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli charter plane near a Kenyan airport.
(Writing by Lin Noueihed, editing by Ralph Boulton)