In an article published yesterday in Ha’aretz, military commentator Amos Har’el suggests that Hamas is preparing for a full-out military confrontation against Israel in the Gaza Strip. Har’el cites senior IDF officers as saying that Hamas has smuggled 20 tons of explosives as well as anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles into the Gaza Strip since the beginning of last year. Apparently, the smuggling of military hardware and know-how has intensified in the past two months at the behest of Hamas’s Damascus-based leadership. Hamas was clearly encouraged by Hizbullah’s tactical successes in southern Lebanon. The goal of this arms build-up is to deter deep Israeli military incursions into the Gaza Strip and to thus allow Hamas to continue firing Qasam rockets and improvements on them into the western Negev. Until now, the group’s militants in the Gaza Strip have not been nearly as successful as Hizbullah at inflicting casualties on Israeli troops and armour, but the IDF has yet to conduct land-based raids into urban centres in the strip. Unfortunately, it seems almost inevitable that such raids will take place at some point in the near future. Unless there are some major political breakthroughs on the Palestinian side, I think that it’s quite likely that the IDF might even embark on an operation to re-conquer the Gaza Strip in the coming year. No one in the IDF general staff wants to be held responsible for allowing the build-up of another Hizbullah-like force on Israel’s south-western flank. Hizbullah had about six years to build an extensive network of tunnels and outposts along the Israeli-Lebanese border and to deploy thousands of short-range missile launchers in the south. Israel is unlikely to sit idly by while this process repeats itself in the Gaza Strip.
Granted, Hamas faces a few more supply hurdles than Hizbullah, which received active aid from neighbouring Syria and did not even have to contend with nominal border controls. However, Egypt’s control over the Sinai and over the tunnels that link the Egyptian town of Rafah to its other half in the Gaza Strip continues to be unimpressive to say the least. I had the opportunity to get a close look at how Egypt’s border controls work when I took the bus from Tel Aviv to Cairo in April 2005. Back then, before the disengagement, the Israelis still controlled a border crossing terminal on the Palestinian side of Rafah. Once we passed through the Israeli border inspections and reached the Egyptian side (a Palestinian driver charged about $5 for a 2 minutes bus ride between the two terminals), everything got a lot slower and less efficient. The Egyptian terminal itself looked like a mini-war zone. But I digress – it’s not nice picking on 3rd World countries in any case. The fact is that they don’t do a good job clamping down on weapons smugglers (even technologically advanced states have trouble doing so) and that their personnel is easily bribed. Meanwhile, the EU border officials/monitors deployed, together with Palestinian guards, on the Palestinian side of the border seem to play only a symbolic role at this stage. The EU’s hope of playing an important confidence building role by pretending to make an effort at interdicting terror suspects and smugglers moving from the anarchic Egyptian northern Sinai into the Gaza Strip has dissipated.