From The Australian, March 16, 2007, by Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem ...
HAMAS is busily fortifying the Gaza Strip with the help of Iranian expertise and funding for what may be the fiercest fighting the embattled enclave has seen [....probably before the end of the year]
"They're digging bunkers and tunnels 20m underground equipped with airconditioning," retired Israeli intelligence officer Brigadier General Shalom Harari said this week. "That's something the Iranians taught them."
Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza 18 months ago, hundreds of Hamas fighters have gone to Iran for intensive military training sometimes lasting months, according to Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin. Iranian experts have also reportedly reached Gaza.
Mr Diskin said on Tuesday that militants last year smuggled more than 30 tonnes of explosives into the Strip, mostly through tunnels from Egypt. According to an Israeli assessment, there are 120,000 automatic weapons in Palestinian hands in the 40km-long strip.
Mr Diskin told the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee that Hamas had significantly upgraded its rocket arsenal. Some could now hit Israeli towns 20km away. Hamas had also acquired in recent months Russian missiles capable of penetrating heavily armoured tanks. Newly acquired anti-aircraft missiles would challenge Israel's domination of the skies over Gaza for the first time.
Brigadier General Harari said: "Hamas and Iran have formed a strategic alliance. Iran sees Hamas as part of a pincer aimed at Israel." The other arm of the pincer, in Lebanon, is Hezbollah.
Like Iran, Hezbollah belongs to the Shia branch of Islam. Though Hamas members are Sunni, they share Iran's fundamentalist ethos and its militancy towards Israel. Iran is also funding militant groups in the West Bank, which borders Israel's heartland. However, Israeli forces are still deployed in the West Bank and almost nightly arrests of militants have prevented Hamas from gaining traction.
Israel is closely monitoring developments in Gaza and has drawn up detailed plans for a large-scale incursion that it would like to press home before Hamas reaches Hezbollah's level of military sophistication. "Hamas wants quiet now so that it can continue its preparations," Brigadier General Harari said. "But their build-up will oblige an Israeli operation, probably before the end of the year."
A major clash with Hamas threatens to be far bloodier than the war with Hezbollah.
South Lebanon, where most of last summer's war was waged, is a thinly populated rural area. Its residents were warned by Israel through leaflets and radio broadcasts to flee before their villages were bombed or shelled. Gaza, by contrast, is one of the world's most densely populated areas, with few secure places to which civilians could flee. If Israeli forces wished to root out Hamas armories and rocket workshops, they would have to fight their way into built-up areas.
In all the years of skirmishing, Israeli troops have never engaged in significant house-to-house fighting in Gaza City or other urban locations.
Given the lacklustre showing of the Israeli Defence Force against Hezbollah last year, it is highly motivated to seek a decisive victory against Hamas. But international pressure could prove a restraining force if many civilians were killed.
Hamas has mined the approaches to Gaza's towns and is expected to mine streets and buildings inside the towns when fighting appears imminent. It is also believed to have dug tunnels under the Israeli border fence to infiltrate fighters behind the Israeli lines.
Israel has drawn up plans for an orderly evacuation of settlements bordering the Gaza Strip when and if fighting starts.