- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2007

JERUSALEM — Israeli incursions into the Gaza Strip, once a walkover, now encounter increasingly effective resistance from forces organized by militants trained in Iran and by Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israeli officers say.

Hamas has organized along the lines of a conventional army, with companies and battalions assigned to defense of specific sectors, a fixed chain of command and teams attempting to stage ambushes of Israeli forces as they enter and leave the strip.

In the months after Hamas’ capture last year of an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, Israeli forces made dozens of aggressive forays into Gaza, killing hundreds of Palestinian fighters without counting a single loss to enemy fire.

The death of an Israeli soldier in a clash with Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip on Monday, however, was the third such fatality in three months. Several more Israelis were wounded in the encounter.

Israel has resumed almost daily operations in Gaza in recent months in what it calls the “security zone,” a two-mile-wide swath on the Palestinian side of the fence separating the strip from Israel. The object of these sweeps is to prevent the militants from digging tunnels underneath the fence or from firing mortars or rockets within the zone. These incursions now are met by forward Hamas units, supported by auxiliaries from other militant groups. Hamas has organized every area with a coordinated network of observation posts and forces that include riflemen and anti-tank units whose rockets also are effective against infantry.

“They are building an army,” said Gen. Moshe Tamir, commander of the Israeli division assigned to Gaza, “and are trying to build bunkers and mortar positions along the border. We are constantly modifying our tactics and they are watching what we do.” He said more than 200 militants have been killed since the beginning of the year.

Israeli officials have warned of a major incursion into the strip if rocket fire into Israel from Gaza does not halt. The increased efficiency of Hamas in the clashes on the periphery of the strip suggests that an Israeli incursion into the heart of Gaza would be a costly move.

The head of Israel”s Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, said Monday that Hamas has smuggled in more than 70 tons of explosives from Egypt since it took control of Gaza in June, bringing the total in its possession to 112 tons. He told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Hamas forces in Gaza now totaled 15,000 trained men in a military-style structure.

In expectation of a major Israeli attack, he said, Hamas is digging bunkers and fortifying defenses.

As for the West Bank, Mr. Diskin said that some terror attacks could be expected if the planned Annapolis peace conference proves fruitless. He said, however, it would not be reminiscent of the violence that broke out in 2000 after failure of Palesinian-Israeli negotiations.

The Palestinian public is too exhausted for another intifada, he said, and lacks the leadership for it.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz ordered Israel”s Defense Ministry on Monday to refrain from cutting off electricity to parts of Gaza if the rocket firing is not halted as Defense Minister Ehud Barak has threatened. Mr. Mazuz said that Israel has a right to sever economic ties with Gaza but that it remained to be established that the reduction in electricity supply would not result in a humanitarian crisis.

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