Israel warned of bombings

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- Hamas has smuggled 40 tons of weapons into the Gaza Strip this summer, apparently intent on resuming suicide bombings in Israel, according to an Israeli intelligence assessment of the militant Islamic group.

Also, Israel won't be able to carry out a major West Bank pullback for 2 1/2 years because it first needs a missile defense system in place to protect it against Palestinian rocket fire, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a parliamentary panel yesterday.

Barak's timetable - announced a day before a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders and as preparations move ahead for a U.S.-sponsored peace conference in the fall - cast doubt on chances of a quick breakthrough in stalled Mideast peacemaking.

Barak said it would take about 2 1/2 years to develop and deploy a system to protect Israel's center against potential rocket attacks from the West Bank.

Militants have launched thousands of rockets into southern Israel from Gaza in the past seven years of fighting, killing 12 Israelis, according to Israeli military figures. The fire did not decrease when Israel pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza two years ago.

A senior officer of Shin Bet, the domestic security agency, told the Cabinet in private testimony Sunday that Hamas' exiled leadership in Syria was plotting attacks to sabotage peace talks between Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.

Israeli officials confirmed that the unidentified officer had made the statements after they were published yesterday in the newspaper Haaretz. Israeli media said the intelligence officer gave no evidence to support his testimony.

The officer said Hamas had brought as many weapons into Gaza since it seized full control of the territory in mid-June as it had in the previous 22 months. He said the Islamic group was increasingly frustrated by Gaza's international isolation.

"The chances of suicide attacks by Hamas are growing, both in Gaza and the West Bank and outside the country," the officer was quoted as saying.

A Hamas official in Gaza, Ahmad Youssef, denied that the group intended to renew suicide bombings. Hamas' last such attack in Israel was in 2004.

But Israeli leaders took the reported weapons buildup as a credible threat. They accused Egypt, which has an anti-smuggling agreement with Israel and publicly supports the peace talks, of allowing Hamas to move arms, ammunition and explosives from Egypt into Gaza.

"Egypt is capable of acting decisively against Hamas but hasn't done so," Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said on Army Radio. "Their intelligence is as good as ours. I think Egypt wants Hamas to be strong. Maybe not too strong, but the Egyptians don't have a full grip on the spigot."

There was no immediate comment from Egypt.

Israel blames Hamas for the deaths of more than 250 people in suicide attacks from 1994 to 2004.

Israeli leaders had hoped to pacify Gaza, the militant group's stronghold, by withdrawing military bases and Jewish settlers from the territory two years ago. But Hamas continued to launch rockets from Gaza after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006.

In mid-June, Hamas ousted the security forces of Fatah, the rival secular movement led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas then fired the Hamas-led government.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice since has prodded Israel to engage Abbas, whose real authority is limited to the West Bank. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are to meet in Jerusalem today.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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