Israel’s spy chief has given a warning that Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip are garnering increasing numbers of weapons and tactical expertise from Hezbollah fighters since the war in southern Lebanon erupted earlier this summer.
Yuval Diskin, the director of Shin Bet, Israel’s equivalent of MI5, said Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was being used as a terrorist base and fast becoming a haven for arms smugglers preparing to shift their wares into the Gaza Strip.
He added that within Gaza terrorists were building rocket hideouts, a bunker network and an anti-tank missile arsenal as they prepared for an escalated confrontation with Israel.
“If we don’t move to counter this smuggling, it will continue and create a situation in Gaza similar to the one in southern Lebanon,” he said at a private meeting with Israeli MPs last week.
He told members of the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defence committee that Hamas had set out to emulate Hezbollah’s tactics in Lebanon, building tunnels and bunkers to help to smuggle weapons and militants across the border from Egypt, since Israel withdrew from Gaza last year. The border is now controlled by the Palestinians and Egypt, with the help of European monitors.
According to accounts of the meeting by MPs who were present, Mr Diskin painted a bleak picture of the growing arsenal of weapons being assembled in Gaza, with Hezbollah’s help, for use against Israel. In addition to Katyusha rockets with a 10-mile range, dozens of anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, 15 tons of explosives, 15,000 guns and four million rounds of ammunition had been smuggled across the Egyptian border through a network of around 20 tunnels, Mr Diskin said.
The only weapons that could not be smuggled in this manner, he added, were tanks and aircraft. The Shin Bet director’s appearance at a behind-closed-doors meeting with MPs last week was his first as spokesman for a new intelligence advisory body, which encompasses Israel’s military intelligence department and its overseas spying agency, Mossad, as well as Shin Bet.
Gaza has come under sustained, and, at times, intense, military pressure from Israel since Palestinian militants snatched an Israeli soldier in late June. More than 270 air strikes, numerous ground raids and days of incessant artillery fire have caused damage of almost Â£20 million, according to UN estimates.
More than 200 Palestinians have been killed and several hundred more wounded in the strikes.
Electricity and water supplies are dangerously low, while the cancellation of subsidies from the European Union and the United States, in addition to payments from Israel to the Palestinian Authority, have brought the economy to its knees.
Any business activity that has continued has been hampered by the growing number of Israeli checkpoints, barriers and controls. All this has forced 80 per cent of Gazans into poverty – earning less than Â£1 a day.
Even as the international community pledged almost Â£300 million in aid to the Palestinians at a donors’ conference in Stockholm on Friday, Israeli military sources remain convinced that the Palestinian threat to Israel is as a great as Hezbollah’s was in Lebanon, and is fast becoming more acute.
They suspect Hezbollah has taken a tactical decision to scale down its operations in southern Lebanon, focussing instead on new anti-Israel fronts in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.
Mr Diskin added that law and order was in rapid decline throughout Palestinian Authority-controlled areas in the West Bank, where Hezbollah was becoming a greater threat than even Fatah and Hamas.
The connection between the two organisations has been strong since 1992, when 400 Hamas members were exiled from Israel to Lebanon where they were significantly influenced, both politically and militarily, by Hezbollah. A number of those Hamas leaders are still based in Lebanon.
Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph earlier this summer, Galeb Abu Zeinab, a senior Hezbollah politburo member, said of his party’s relationship with Hamas: “The co-operation with Hamas is the best kind of co-operation. We always consult with each other and share experiences. Hezbollah tries to support Hamas is any way it can.”
Alistair Crooke, a retired MI6 officer who spent several years during the early 1990s trying to engage Hamas and Hezbollah in dialogue with the EU, agreed with this appraisal.
“Hamas and Hezbollah are going to concert their policy towards the Palestinians in close co-operation with each other,” he said.
Israeli military analysts believe that the number of weapons being delivered to the Gaza Strip has doubled since the war ended.