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Friday, July 20, 2007

Israel: Hamas has formed an army of 13,000

TEL AVIV The Israeli military has concluded that Hamas has has mobilized and trained a veritable army of at least 13,000 soldiers since the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The forces have arms and explosives smuggled from Egypt.

"Hamas is building its forces rapidly and that's why it is currently limiting attacks against us," a member of the General Staff said.

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[On Friday, Palestinian gunners continued Kassam-class missile attacks on Israel. At least two missiles slammed into the Israeli city of Sderot, damaging cars and other property.]

The Israeli general, who gave a briefing on Thursday, reviewed Hamas's military capabilities. Hamas was said to have formed an army of 13,000 soldiers, organized into four professional brigades, and equipped with anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, surface-to-surface rockets and mortars.

The general said Hamas has accelerated its military buildup since the movement's takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. He said Hamas, which now controls the Gaza border with Egypt, smuggled 20 tons of explosives from the neighboring Sinai Peninsula in June. In 2006, Hamas acquired 36 tons of explosives from Sinai.

Officials said the military assessment has been relayed to the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as well as parliament. They said Olmert has been urged by the military to draft a strategy against Hamas.

"This [Israeli briefing] was more of a statement of facts than an assessment," Tsahi Hanegbi, chairman of parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said. "Hamas has weapons meant to break the strategic balance with Israel."

The military briefer said the Egypt-Gaza border comprised virtually no obstacle to Hamas weapons smugglers. The general said Egypt has been unable and unwilling to stop the influx of arms and explosives from Sinai.

"The Israeli government must decide on what to do about Hamas," the general said. "A decision should be made before any operation in the Gaza Strip becomes complicated because of Hamas's growing capabilities."

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