TEL AVIV, Israel, Oct. 18 (UPI) -- Israeli troops have penetrated the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, beside its border with Egypt, maintaining they are looking for arms-smuggling tunnels.
A military source told United Press International the troops Wednesday penetrated a little over two miles into the Strip. They discovered five tunnels and signs of more used for smuggling arms from Egypt. Palestinian reports said tanks assumed positions at the Rafah Crossing, which is the Palestinians' only exit to the outside world. Troops have also cut the main north-south road from Gaza to the border.
Other forces have been operating in the northern Gaza Strip to prevent rocket fire into Israel.
The Israelis are concerned that Hamas is trying to emulate the Lebanese Hezbollah guerilla organization, which withstood a month-long Israeli attack this summer. Hezbollah had built underground bunkers, amassed thousands of rockets in southern Lebanon, and during the war fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel. Russian anti-tank missiles it received via Syria knocked out tanks and penetrated houses in which troops were ensconced.
A senior Defense Ministry official, who spoke to UPI on condition of anonymity, reported "a massive digging of tunnels" in the Gaza Strip. The soldiers operating near the border with Egypt found 10 tunnels, some not very deep, he said. The Israelis believe the Palestinians are digging another tunnel -- into Israel -- to kidnap more soldiers. They kidnapped one, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, in June.
The Israelis believe the Palestinians have smuggled Grad rockets, anti-tank and shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles. According to some estimates, the Palestinians have imported some 20 tons of explosives in recent months.
The deputy head of the Shabak security agency, whose identity is classified, Sunday told the Cabinet that tools and activists, some of them from Syria, have arrived in the Gaza Strip to "upgrade capabilities" there.
The Israelis passed their intelligence to the Egyptians, who discovered tunnels, but the Shabak official said the Egyptian activity is not as good as Israel had expected.
A spokesman for the European Union monitors in Rafah, Pekka Korhola, told UPI such weapons cannot be smuggled through the crossing since all passengers and luggage are x-rayed. "The only way to import weapons and explosives is through the tunnels," he said. The Israeli Navy patrols Gaza's coast.
Some $40 million have been smuggled into the Gaza Strip, and the Defense Ministry source said the money did not go to pay civil servants' wages or fund other governmental activity.
"Hamas is preparing for war," he said. Part of the buildup is aimed at fighting Israel and part to combat the nationalist Fatah, he maintained.
Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, but Palestinian militants continued cross-border rocket attacks, planted explosive charges near the border fence and have been holding Cpl. Shalit captive since June.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused the militants of provoking Israel into more attacks, but several militant groups, including Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, upheld the continued struggle.
Thanks to "the resistance' rockets...we liberated the Gaza Strip by force, not by negotiations," they said in a statement relayed to the Ramatan news agency in Gaza. It seemed a dig at Abbas, who advocates negotiations but failed to win Israeli concessions.
Qassam rockets have hit the town of Sderot, and a spokesman for the Islamic Jihad's Al- Quds Brigades said the attacks proved the organization's efficiency and ability, the Maan news agency reported.
In recent weeks the deadly Palestinian infighting has subsided. The Defense Ministry source said he believed it has been quiet because the holy Muslim month of Ramadan is a restraining factor.
Ramadan -- in which observant Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn till dusk -- will soon end. The Israeli official predicted violence will escalate to gang warfare and clashes within the Palestinian Authority between groups associated with Fatah and those with Hamas. The deputy head of the Shabak noted Sunday that Hamas had the upper hand in the latest clashes in Gaza. Fatah men have been moving their families from Gaza to the West Bank, the source added.
This suggests Israel is cooperating with that move. No one can reach the West Bank without Israeli consent.
So far, Israel's raids into Gaza have been limited in time and scope, and troops eventually left the area.
"The army doesn't want very big operations," the Defense Ministry source said.
However, the Israeli government has been criticized for allowing the Hezbollah buildup in Lebanon, and seems bent on not allowing a repetition in the Gaza Strip.
The recently retired head of the National Security Council, retired Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, Wednesday told Israel Radio that unless the Palestinians control their fire into Israel, "and it seems they're not, then maybe we will have no alternative but to worsen our activities."
At the Knesset, Defense Minister Amir Peretz spoke of "voices trying to create an expectation for a wide-scale operation and I announce unequivocally: We have no intention to occupy Gaza. We have no intention to return to Gaza and stay there."
However, Peretz added, the government is committed to securing Israel, which means "stopping the buildup and the attempt to turn the Gaza Strip into (a) southern Lebanon."
If militant elements managed to smuggle tens of anti-tank missiles, he said, "we do not intend to wait until hundreds and thousands flow (in). If the diggings continue, we shall not shut our eyes until the tunneled smuggling routes turn into highways."