As Hamas stockpiles weapons, Israel fears new Lebanon clash

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 not to let this happen.

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 Egyptian border. Last week alone, an estimated $6 million worth of arms 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 so far this year.

IDF officers believe Hamas is hoping 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.

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 as Israeli helicopters and unmanned drones target rocket-launching teams.

Given the latest arms-smuggling figures, the generals are considering widening these operations.

Some analysts maintain that that’s what Hamas wants: A wider operation could leave the IDF more vulnerable.

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.

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 Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ secular Fatah party are able to overcome their differences and set up a national unity government, paving the way for a cease-fire and peace talks.

But Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel or be part of a government that does has led to a deadlock. Without such recognition, the international community will not lift its boycott nor will Israel 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 Israeli view is that it’s now up to the Palestinians to make a historic choice for war or peace.