- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When Israel withdrew all of its soldiers and civilians from Gaza in August 2005, it created a massive strategic void that has been filled by Hamas with extensive support from Iran and Syria. With the June 2007 putsch that expelled Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah organization from Gaza, Hamas became the undisputed ruler there. Buoyed by Hezbollah’s success in building a military force in Lebanon that proved capable of withstanding a withering military assault two years ago from Israel, the regional military superpower, Hamas is building a modern army.

Today, there are approximately 20,000 armed operatives in Gaza who answer directly to Hamas or can be integrated into its forces in an emergency. These fighters often undergo training in Iran and Syria, and then return to Gaza — either through an extensive network of tunnels or overland through the Rafah crossing, exploiting the weakness of the Egyptian security forces that are supposed to prevent such cross-border smuggling.

In addition to the weapons and personnel it has smuggled into Gaza, Hamas also possesses a substantial arsenal of 122-mm Grad rockets, anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles and machine guns, patrol boats and explosives. According to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC), an Israel-based research organization, Hamas is working on increasing the armor-piercing capabilities of its improvised explosive devices, or IEDs (much as al Qaeda is doing against American troops in Iraq.) Hamas is walking a very fine line: Like its patrons in Tehran, it is opposed to Israel’s existence in any form, and is determined to strike it whenever possible. But it is probably in its interest to avoid for now the kind of mass-casualty terrorist attack that would provoke a large-scale Israeli military operation in Gaza analogous to Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006.

So Hamas adopted a multi-tracked approach: steadily amassing weapons for a war with Israel several years from now while fielding a guerrilla-warfare infrastructure to fight the Israeli military if it invades during the next few months. The Hamas arsenal, which has grown substantially during the past year, includes artillery rockets and mortar shells smuggled into the Gaza Strip which can reach 12.5 miles into Israel — a substantial increase over the 7.5 miles that Hamas’ locally produced rockets can travel. This enables the Hamas rocket arsenal to reach Ashkelon, an Israeli city with a population of more than 100,000 people, and increases the threat to Israeli military forces operating near Gaza.

Advanced anti-tank weapons smuggled into Gaza improve Hamas’ ability to wage anti-tank warfare against Israeli forces at night. Hamas is increasing the armor-piercing capabilities of its IEDs so that they can penetrate the Israeli military’s armored vehicles. Its anti-aircraft equipment constitute a mounting threat to Israeli aircraft operating near Gaza. Like Hezbollah and Iraqi jihadists, Hamas is preparing to employ “asymmetric warfare” — conducting hit-and-run attacks and blending in with the civilian population, effectively turning them into human shields.

It is likely just a matter of time until this strengthened Hamas arsenal confronts the Israeli military for control of Gaza.


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