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Israelis fear arms buildup in Gaza

Parallels seen with Lebanon

Israeli soldiers jumped off an armored personnel carrier near Evez Crossing last week after returning from Beit Hanoun. The weeklong invasion ended Tuesday.
Israeli soldiers jumped off an armored personnel carrier near Evez Crossing last week after returning from Beit Hanoun. The weeklong invasion ended Tuesday. (Dave Buimovitch/ Associated Press)

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip -- Israeli officials say they fear that the Gaza Strip could become another southern Lebanon, a concern that drove the Israelis' weeklong invasion of this northern Gaza town last week and could soon lead to a larger offensive in southern Gaza to stop militants from smuggling weapons across the Egyptian border.

A senior military official recently described "Lebanonization" -- the possibility that Palestinian militants could end up as well organized, well fortified, and well armed as the Lebanese group Hezbollah -- as the most worrying new threat Israel faces in Gaza.

But last week's fighting in Beit Hanoun also showed that Israel could face many of the obstacles there that it faced in Lebanon last summer.

The weeklong invasion of the northern Gaza town that ended Tuesday was aimed at rooting out militants who daily fire crude Qassam rockets into Israel and are trying to get their hands on much deadlier rockets and missiles like the ones that Hezbollah fighters rained down on Israel during the war with the Lebanese militia.

In that conflict, Hamas watched Hezbollah's army-like discipline and antitank rockets deny the much-stronger Israeli army a decisive victory. After that, the Israeli military official said, the Palestinian group decided to "imitate Hezbollah." Hamas, he said, began smuggling in more-advanced weapons and Iranian know-how through a growing network of tunnels under the Egyptian border.

But the fighting in Beit Hanoun ended in a debacle that revealed another parallel with Lebanon.

On Wednesday morning, Israeli artillery shells crashed into apartment buildings here, killing 19 civilians, 17 of them from a single family, in the largest death toll among Palestinian civilians in six years of conflict. Israeli officials apologized for what they called a tragic accident.

The Beit Hanoun deaths showed once again that there is no guarantee that heavy Israeli firepower can crush militants who operate in crowded areas without killing large numbers of civilians, fueling rage against Israel and hardening support for the armed groups Israel wants to undermine.

The deaths also prompted a broader debate over tactics in Gaza, where Israel risks the same ambiguous results it achieved in Lebanon: It could inflict, and sustain, major casualties without achieving its main goal of stamping out militants' ability to fire rockets into Israel.

At the same time, Palestinians face their own version of the Lebanese nightmare: They question whether militants who are unaccountable to the government should have the power to bring down a devastating Israeli response by choosing to fire their rockets.

Ayoub Kafarneh, 73, a mukhtar, or community leader, in Beit Hanoun, said he opposes the rocket firings.

"You need few people to make war. But everybody suffers from the consequences," he said. "There are people who want peace. But their voices are unheard."

As the Atamna family buried its victims in a mass funeral Thursday, mourners stood on tiptoe to touch the pale faces of the dead as they were carried above the crowd. Not only Hamas supporters, but also members of the Atamna clan, who mostly back the more moderate Fatah movement, said they would support new attacks on Israel in response. Images of grieving relatives and bloody debris already had been beamed around the world, provoking Israeli protests in Tel Aviv and international appeals to Israel to prevent civilian casualties.

The events echoed those of July 30, when an Israeli airstrike on a house in the southern Lebanese town of Qana killed 28 civilians. That attack undermined the international support for the war Israel launched after Hezbollah militants crossed into its territory and captured two Israeli soldiers.

In Qana, the Israeli military initially said militants had fired rockets from the house, but later said they had no such information.

In Beit Hanoun, an Israeli military investigation ruled Thursday, the military did not intend to hit the Atamna family compound. Seven artillery shells fired at a suspected rocket-launching team in an orange orchard landed 400 yards from their target, because of a radar system that was inaccurately calibrated, the military said.

The military imposed new limits on the use of artillery fire, saying it now required the approval of higher commanders.

"We should avoid using it when it is ineffective or when the danger to civilians does not justify its use," Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Wednesday, recommending airstrikes and missiles that can be more precisely targeted.

Israeli officials also placed new emphasis on the need for a political solution in the aftermath of the deaths. Sneh stressed that a military solution alone will not loosen militants' hold on Gaza's economically strangled society.

And Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is scheduled to visit Washington today to meet with President Bush, offered to hold his first talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. "I can offer him a lot," he said.

Israel pulled its nearly 9,000 settlers and its military force out of Gaza in September 2005 after occupying the 20-mile strip for 38 years, hoping to undermine militants who justified their rocket fire as resistance against occupation. But most Palestinians feel that Gaza, whose borders are controlled by Israel, is still not free, and militants have fired thousands of rockets since the pullout.

The inaccurate Qassams haven't killed an Israeli since July 2005, but residents of Israeli towns near Gaza say it's only a matter of time. The Israeli military has fired tens of thousands of artillery shells in what it calls "preventative" fire to make it harder for rocket launchers to maneuver. But that hasn't stopped the rocket firing.

Nor did a series of operations over the summer that killed many rocket-launching teams, culminating in the Beit Hanoun incursion that killed more than 60, including some civilians. Israeli operations in Gaza this year killed at least 53 Palestinians uninvolved in fighting Israel, according to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group.

Some Israeli commentators are asking whether the price is worth the result, and are skeptical of the proposed assault in southern Gaza. "Are there indeed essential security reasons . . . or are commanders whose pride was hurt [in Lebanon] looking for a success?" the daily newspaper Ha'aretz asked last week.

It would be hard for Hamas to become another Hezbollah. While Hamas won control of the Palestinian government in January elections and Hezbollah fields only a small bloc in the Lebanese Parliament, Hezbollah has more freedom to operate militarily. Hamas must smuggle weapons from Egypt through tunnels, while Hezbollah had free passage along the entire Syrian border for decades to build its arsenal.

And Hamas must contend with rival militant and political factions, including Palestinian security forces that approximately equal its firepower, while Hezbollah was the strongest force in Lebanon, more effective than the official Lebanese Army.

At the same time, Israeli military officials say, there is real danger that Hamas -- which like Hezbollah is listed as a terrorist group by the United States -- could significantly upgrade its military capacity.

They say that intelligence reports suggest Hamas and other militants are importing increasing quantities of explosives and automatic rifles, in addition to the advanced antitank missiles that caused most Israeli military deaths in Lebanon.

These fighters are increasing their network of smuggling tunnels in the south; 13 new ones were found last month. Militants are leaving Gaza through the Rafah Crossing into Egypt and then traveling to Syria, Lebanon or Iran, coming back with new training in Hezbollah tactics, the senior military official said.

Hamas militants showed new prowess even before the Lebanon war, when they captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid that closely resembled the Hezbollah attack the following month.

Already, Israel has adapted its tactics: In the Beit Hanoun operation, most soldiers went in on foot instead of tanks that the army views as newly vulnerable to the antitank rockets.

Globe correspondent Sa'id Ghazali contributed to this report.

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