JERUSALEM (AP) – Gaza’s ruling Hamas is rapidly improving its military capacity and could soon endanger hundreds of thousands more Israelis with its missiles, Israel’s public security minister said Saturday, the latest of several senior Israeli officials to warn of a growing danger from Gaza.
The minister, Avi Dichter, told Israel Radio that Israel must destroy Hamas’ arsenal, claiming it was almost on par with that of a sovereign state. In a separate interview, the outgoing air force chief, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedi, said that in a future war, Israel would come under heavy rocket attack, including from Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is coming under growing public pressure at home to order a military offensive against Hamas, following two deadly missile strikes and a rocket hit on a crowded mall within a week.
The recent warnings further contributed to the push for an offensive. In Gaza, Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, said Israel is exaggerating Hamas’ capacity in order to set the stage for a large-scale operation. However, Abu Obeida also said Hamas is pushing hard to obtain more weapons.
Olmert has held off on an offensive, in part because Israel does not seem to have an exit strategy, because a reoccupation of Gaza would kill many Israelis and Palestinians, and because the fighting would almost certainly derail Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and thus sabotage a key U.S. foreign policy objective. However, earlier this week, Israel’s army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, dropped his opposition to a ground offensive in Gaza, security officials said.
Since Hamas seized control of Gaza by force almost a year ago, Israel has routinely targeted Gaza militants in missile strikes or sent ground forces into border areas for limited operations. It has also dramatically reduced supplies of fuel and commercial goods into the territory to pressure militants to halt their fire. So far, both strategies have failed to halt rocket fire from Gaza.
On Wednesday, during a visit to Israel by U.S. President George W. Bush to mark Israel’s 60th anniversary, an Iranian-made Grad rocket from Gaza hit a crowded shopping mall in the coastal city of Ashkelon, 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Gaza, and wounded 14 people, four of them seriously.
Israel’s military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, warned this week that Hamas is expanding the range of its missiles and that cities such as Ashdod or Beersheba could soon come under threat.
Hamas is obtaining longer-range missiles through smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border, and Israel believes Iran is the main supplier. Hamas also produces short-range Qassam rockets in Gaza.
Dichter told Israel Radio on Saturday that Hamas’ military arsenal is almost on par with that of a sovereign state. He said that while 200,000 Israelis are currently threatened by Hamas missiles, that number could grow to half a million soon.
Strategic targets, such as the turbines of Ashkelon’s power plant and the Ashdod port, are under threat, he said. “We mustn’t let Hamas grab Israel by the turbines,” he said, portraying Gaza’s rulers as a “malignant Iranian tumor.”
Dichter said Israel’s strategic objective is to destroy the Hamas threat, and that Egyptian efforts to negotiate a period of calm on the Gaza-Israel border would at best offer a brief tactical advantage. He said a military campaign against Hamas could go on for years. Failure to defeat Hamas could destabilize the West Bank, which is ruled by moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he warned.
On Friday, Yadlin, the intelligence chief, told the Haaretz daily that Abbas may be forced to leave the West Bank if efforts fail to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. The talks have not produced tangible results, and Yadlin said he’s not optimistic a deal can be reached by the end of the year, as Bush had hoped.
Olmert’s standing at home as also been increasingly weakened by a widening corruption probe against him, his fifth. Israel TV’s Channel Two said police will question Olmert in coming days and confront him with new evidence obtained in recent interrogations of those believed involved. Earlier this week, police questioned two U.S. businessmen in connection with the suspicions. Olmert has been questioned once so far.
The case centers on American fundraiser Morris Talansky who allegedly transferred tens of thousands of dollars to Olmert. The delivery of the cash allegedly occurred during Olmert’s tenure as Jerusalem mayor and as trade minister.
Talansky is to give a court deposition on May 25. Dichter, a member of Olmert’s Kadima Party, said Saturday he’d seek the party’s leadership if an when it becomes a realistic option. Olmert has said he’d resign if indicted.