Wednesday, April 27, 2005

TEL AVIV — Top army officers warn that Palestinian militants are preparing to resume hostilities, possibly after Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank.

Outgoing military Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon issued the warning in a speech last week, and military intelligence chiefs discussed it in briefings to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

The pullback from Gaza is expected to begin mid-August. The evacuation of Jewish settlers there will take three weeks to a month, after which the defense establishment will take a few weeks to remove infrastructure and the army’s installations.

In an interview in Tel Aviv this week, a senior military source told United Press International that the militant Palestinian groups’ leaders and operational commanders assume the calming-down period — or tahadiyah in Arabic — will not last long.

The army’s rules stipulate the source may not be identified by name or title.

The source noted that in talks in Cairo, militants committed themselves to maintain quiet this year, but their plans say they must prepare for the day after.

Members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade “whose commitments are conditional” want to resume fighting, the source said.

The groups are arming, recruiting, training and planning for the next round of fighting, the senior officer said.

Thousands of guns, including Kalashnikov assault rifles and handguns, are smuggled from Egypt into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Prices have dropped, indicating some of the demand has been met.

Other weapons include rocket-propelled grenades, explosives, anti-tank rockets and probably Strella anti-aircraft missiles, the source said.

Some go to the Gaza Strip and some are smuggled across Israel’s Negev desert to the West Bank. They are sold to individual Palestinians or to groups that store them. Hamas has its own smuggling system, the officer said.

Egypt and the Palestinian Authority are making “a greater effort that in the past” to stop the traffic but are not doing all they can, he said.

They know who the smugglers are but instead of going after them, they try to seal the tunnels that pass under the narrow Israeli strip at the southern edge of Gaza.

In some instances, Israel provided the Palestinian Authority with the smugglers’ names.

“They promised to take care of it, and I have not seen that done,” the source said.

Instead, Palestinian security officials warned smugglers that the Israelis were on their trail, he said. The Egyptians, too, “could do much more to stop the smuggling. They know the smugglers quite well,” he added.

The second major Palestinian militant effort is directed at developing rockets that can hit the Israeli town of Ashkelon, north of the Gaza Strip. The town of 100,000 is near strategic sites such an electric power plant.

Palestinian rockets have a range of 5.6 miles, and because militants cannot fire from the Israeli-controlled boundary line, they are working to extend the rockets’ range and conduct “very many” test firings into the sea, the source said.

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