- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

JERUSALEM — Israeli officials fear Hamas is busily fortifying the Gaza Strip with the help of Iranian expertise and funding for what may be the fiercest fighting that embattled enclave has ever seen.

“They’re digging bunkers and tunnels 20 meters underground equipped with air conditioning,” Brig. Gen. Shalom Harari, a retired Israeli intelligence officer said in a recent lecture at Middle East Media Research Institute in Jerusalem. “That’s something the Iranians taught them.”

Since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza a year and a half ago, hundreds of Hamas fighters have made their way to Iran for intensive military training sometimes lasting months, Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet security service, told the Israeli parliament.

Mr. Diskin said that militants last year smuggled more than 30 tons of explosives into the Gaza Strip, mostly through tunnels from Egypt. According to a widely reported Israeli assessment, there are 120,000 automatic weapons in Palestinian hands in the 25-mile-long strip.

Mr. Diskin also told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in testimony last week that Hamas has significantly upgraded its rocket arsenal and is capable of hitting Israeli towns more than 10 miles inside Israel.

Reports of a Hamas arms buildup in Gaza have been featured prominently in the Israeli press in recent weeks, with comparisons to last summer’s war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Southern Lebanon that ended inconclusively.

“Hamas and Iran have formed a strategic alliance,” said Gen. Harari. “Iran sees Hamas as part of a pincer aimed at 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 their almost nightly arrests of militants have prevented Hamas from gaining traction there.

“Hamas wants quiet [in Gaza] now so it can continue its preparations,” Mr. Harari said. “But their buildup 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 most densely populated areas in the world, and there are 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 urban 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 Israeli military’s lackluster showing against Hezbollah last year, it is highly motivated to seek a decisive victory against Hamas.

In last summer’s war, more than a million Israelis living close to the border spent a month in inadequate shelters under daily Hezbollah rocketing or fled south on their own to quieter areas.

This time, Israel has drawn up plans for an orderly evacuation of areas of the Gaza Strip when and if battle is joined.

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