Friday, April 11, 2008

Hamas in Largest Arms Buildup Yet

From The New York Times, April 10, 2008, by ETHAN BRONNER*:

JERUSALEM — An Israeli study says Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, is engaged in the broadest and most significant military buildup in its history with help from Syria and Iran. It adds that Hamas is restructuring more hierarchically and using more and more powerful weapons, especially longer-range rockets against Israel’s southern communities.

The study, by an independent research group with close ties to the Israeli military establishment, says that though the buildup will take some years to complete, it is in an intensive phase that has already led to better infiltration into Israel and a rise in the breadth and precision of rocket fire.

“This is the first comprehensive analysis of the Hamas buildup,” said Reuven Erlich, a retired colonel in military intelligence who heads the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, the institute that produced the study. “It is based on a wide range of sources. And what is very clear is that Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, is aiming to use rocket fire to draw the Israeli military in.”

The 52-page study, to be released publicly on Thursday, says that after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, Hamas began a consolidation of power. It won the Palestinian elections against the more secular Fatah party in 2006, after sharing power uneasily with Fatah, then routed Fatah forces from Gaza last summer.

A copy of the study was provided to The New York Times.

According to a report by the Shin Bet internal security services quoted in the study, Hamas has smuggled at least 80 tons of explosives into Gaza since last summer. That smuggling accounts for more than half the amount moved into Gaza since Israel’s withdrawal, evidence of the intensification, the study asserts.

The study also says Hamas has obtained advanced anti-tank devices like those used by Hezbollah against Israel in its war in 2006, as well as powerful roadside bombs for use in border areas where Israeli vehicles might be expected to pass in pursuit of rocket launchers. It added that hundreds of fighters had been trained in Iran, Lebanon and Syria. ....

....The study... asserts that any kind of truce would allow Hamas to build its military structure further, although it also says Hamas’s big worry is that Israel will reinvade Gaza. Such a concern is one motivation for the buildup, the study says.

A senior Israeli official in the prime minister’s office, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, said that what he took from the report was that when there was relative quiet in Gaza, Israel ran the risk of playing into Hamas’s hands by allowing it to continue its military buildup....

....It also says the military buildup is being run largely from Damascus, where Hamas has a base, because there is better access there to Syrian and Iranian money and weapons. Nonetheless, it says, political power within Hamas is increasingly moving to the Gaza Strip.

One focus of the study is the improved nature of the rockets available in Gaza as a result of smuggling through Egypt and dozens of underground tunnels leading from Egypt into Gaza. The report does not accuse Egypt of cooperating in the smuggling, only of ineffectiveness in stopping it.

Some rockets, it says, are clearly made outside Gaza, factory-produced with larger diameters and ranges, probably in Iran. Israel has been very worried by rockets that can reach into major population centers in the south like Ashkelon and Ashdod. Simpler rockets are made in Gaza from material, like piping, that is brought in legally or illegally from Israel or Egypt.
The study also says Hamas has gotten more clever at hiding rockets in densely populated neighborhoods. Its tactic, the study suggests, will be to fight only lightly when Israeli units enter Gazan territory, then lure them into the heavily populated areas where booby-traps and roadside bombs will be waiting.

*Taghreed al-Khodary contributed reporting from Gaza.

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