With Hamas stockpiling weapons, Israel fears ‘new Lebanon’ in South


JERUSALEM — With Hamas’ militia smuggling millions of dollars’ worth of weapons into Gaza and Israel determined to prevent a significant Palestinian arms build-up, the two sides could be on the brink of a major military showdown.

According to IDF sources, Hamas wants to emulate Hezbollah’s model in Lebanon: to develop its rocket threat against Israeli civilians, use sophisticated anti-tank weapons to inflict losses on Israeli armor and troops and build strong defense systems to impede Israel Defense Forces’ movement.

Israel is determined to nip these developments in the bud.

“We have learned the lessons of Lebanon,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz was reported as saying in closed meetings. “We won’t allow Hamas to become part of the Iranian axis of evil.”

The fact that there’s no political process on the immediate horizon makes the situation even more volatile.

“Israel is marching rationally and with its eyes open toward a head-on confrontation with the Hamas authority in Gaza. Both sides are preparing for it, on the assumption that it is unavoidable,” military analyst Alex Fishman wrote in Yediot Achronot.

Most of the weapons are being smuggled into Gaza across the border with Egypt. Last week alone, an estimated $6 million worth of arms and ammunition got through, IDF sources say.

Significantly, the consignments included dozens of Russian-made Konkurs anti-tank missiles, one of the weapons used by Hezbollah to great effect against Israeli tanks and soldiers in the recent Lebanon war. According to Israeli estimates, Hamas has smuggled more than 20 tons of explosives, anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank weapons, sniper rifles and ammunition into Gaza since the beginning of the year.

According to IDF officers, Hamas hopes to create a Hezbollah-like “balance of terror” by building solid defensive positions and acquiring and stockpiling longer-range rockets. The group then would be in a position to threaten heavy and persistent rocket attacks on Israeli civilians and a costly ground operation if the IDF moved in to stop the rocket fire.

“The Palestinians are arming themselves to the teeth, building a military force, defensive systems and preparing Hezbollah-style surprises,” Fishman wrote.

Last week, the IDF escalated its activities in Gaza against Palestinian militiamen and the arms build-up. In operation “Rain Man” in the southern Gaza Strip, and operation “Four Kinds” in the North, soldiers have been searching for tunnels and arms caches and engaging Palestinian militiamen as Israeli helicopters and unmanned drones target Palestinian rocket-launching teams.

Over the weekend, about 20 Palestinians were killed. However, given the latest arms-smuggling figures, the generals are considering widening these operations.

Some analysts maintain that that’s just what Hamas wants: It believes a wider Israeli operation would leave the IDF more vulnerable to attack with the new weapons at the Palestinians’ disposal.

“If Israel widens its military activities our response will be so strong the earth will shake,” warned Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Izz a-Din al-Kassam, the Hamas military wing.

The IDF has been conducting a low-key but highly effective operation in Gaza since the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit in late June. In the four months since then, more than 300 Palestinians, most of them fighters, have been killed.

Persistent Palestinian rocket attacks on nearby towns and villages have not caused any Israeli fatalities during that period, and IDF losses in Gaza have been just one soldier dead, killed by “friendly fire.”

Hamas militiamen in Gaza are said to be under tremendous pressure from the organization’s radical, Damascus-based leadership to inflict heavier losses.

The looming confrontation could be averted if the fundamentalist Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ secular Fatah party are able to overcome their differences and set up a national unity government. That could pave the way for a cease-fire and peace talks with Israel.

But Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel or be part of a government that does has led to deadlock. Without such recognition, the international community will not lift its boycott of the Palestinian Authority, nor will Israel be ready to begin peace talks.

Fatah has been unwilling to form a unity government on Hamas’ terms. To break the impasse, Abbas is threatening to call new elections, but Hamas warns that if he does, there could be civil war. Growing instability on the Palestinian side could intensify hostilities against Israel.

Moreover, Israeli officials are convinced that if there is a cease-fire, Hamas will merely use it to stockpile more weapons. This fundamental mistrust of Hamas’ motives also helps make another serious round of fighting more likely.

The United States long ago reached the conclusion that as long as Hamas is in power there’s no way the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock can be broken. According to unconfirmed reports, Washington already is taking action to topple Hamas and bring Fatah to power: The Bush administration reportedly has budgeted $42 million to create “democratic alternatives” — in other words, to create an alternative secular education system, encourage critical journalists, help Fatah campaign strategies and enlarge Abbas’ Force 17 presidential guard.

Whether this American initiative can prevent civil war among the Palestinians or hostilities between Palestinian militias and Israel remains to be seen. Some observers think it could exacerbate an already difficult situation — and could even lead to Hamas militants attacking American targets.

Clearly, the situation is highly inflammable. Israeli officials believe that as long as Hamas militants are convinced they can adapt the Lebanese model to embarrass and perhaps even ultimately defeat Israel, the chances for peacemaking on the Palestinian track are slim.

The Israeli view is that it’s now up to the Palestinians to make a historic choice for war or peace. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert succinctly summed it up in his address opening the Knesset’s winter session.

“The Palestinians must decide what kind of future they want,” he declared. That is, to decide between coexistence or continued conflict with Israel — or, in other words, between Fatah and Hamas.