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Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden urged Muslims to launch a jihad against Israel and condemned Arab governments as allies of the Jewish state in a new message aimed at harnessing anger in the Mideast over the Gaza offensive.

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Bin Laden spoke in an audiotape posted Wednesday on Islamic militant Web sites where al-Qaida usually issues its messages. It was his first tape since May and came nearly three weeks after Israel started its campaign against Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers.

“There is only one strong way to bring the return of Al-Aqsa and Palestine, and that is jihad in the path of God,” bin Laden said in the 22-minute audiotape, referring to the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. “The duty is to urge people to jihad and to enlist the youth into jihad brigades.”

“Muslim nation, you are capable of defeating the Zionist entity with your popular capabilities and your great hidden strength — without the support of (Arab) leaders and despite the fact that most of (the leaders) stand in the barracks of the Crusader-Zionist alliance,” bin Laden said.

The authenticity of the tape could not be independently confirmed, but the voice resembled that of bin Laden in previous messages.

The tape, entitled “Call for jihad to stop the aggression on Gaza,” was played over a still picture of bin Laden and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, one of Islam’s holiest sites. But there were no English subtitles and flashy production effects that usually accompany such messages.

That suggested the message had been hastily put together and issued to best exploit anger in the region over the Gaza offensive, which Palestinian medical officials say has killed more than 940 Palestinians, half of them civilians. Israel said the offensive aims to halt rocket fire from Gaza against Israeli towns.

Bin Laden accused Arab leaders of “avoiding their responsibility” to liberate Palestine.

“If you are not convinced to fight, then open the way to those who are convinced,” he said.

Bin Laden and his lieutenants frequently use the Palestinian issue to try to rally support for al-Qaida and often call for holy war to free Jerusalem.

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