Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Advanced weapons for Gaza terrorists turn security heads about retreat

A new missile threat has compelled Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter and IDF chiefs to openly challenge prime minister Ariel Sharon's plans for the accelerated removal of Israeli settlements, residents, and forces from the Gaza Strip.

The Luna-2 short-range ground-to-ground missile, based on the Soviet-era Frog-2, has already extended Hizballah's missile range from the north to cover Israel's coastal cities of Haifa and as far south as Netanya and Hadera.

With Tehran already playing a direct role in leading military operations of Hamas in Gaza, it is believed likely that these missiles eventually will be transferred to the Strip, especially if Israel retreats and loosens its grip on the border crossing with Egypt and Mediterranean Sea approaches. This would bring all of southern Israel, including the Tel Aviv metro region, within striking range.

Israeli intelligence sources believe that Syria has fitted the Lebanon-based missiles with chemical warheads, which can be attached in hours.

In July, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi ('Farkash'), head of Israeli military intelligence, said that Hizbullah possesses around 13,000 short-range rockets, some 500 of medium range and a few dozen long-range rockets capable of traveling 70 to 134 miles. The rockets appear to have granted Hizballah a strategic parity with Israel along the Blue Line, deterring the Israeli army from launching large-scale military operations against the group for fear of major strikes against northern Israel.

Hizbullah has already penetrated deep into terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli officials say Hizbullah plays a key role in providing funds, guidance and training to Palestinian terrorists there. In August, Yediot Aharonot daily quoted a senior army officer as saying that Hizbullah was involved in 75 percent of Palestinian military operations in the West Bank. 'The involvement of Hizbullah in Palestinian operations is no longer a secret matter, but is common knowledge and it is increasing and expanding,' he said.

Security chiefs fear that the Hizballah, working with Iran, is already shipping and prepositioning missiles in northern Sinai, anticipating the 'morning after' and Israeli retreat. Egyptian security authorities, who are concerned by the arrival of heavy weapons from Iran on their territory, have reportedly seized one shipment of Katyusha rockets before they could be smuggled into the Gaza Strip. But military intelligence sources believe that some such weapons have already reached their intended destination.

Iran and Syria have reportedly instructed Hamas to veto any Egyptian or other programs to secure the Gaza Strip after Israel's planned retreat. Senior security officials in Israel and Egypt have concluded that the implementation of Sharon's plan will transform Gaza into a second missile front against Israel's heartland, a 'South Lebanon to Israel's South, as one put it. "