The Israeli army announced Wednesday that it had uncovered nine tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt in a sweep designed to prevent Palestinian militants from smuggling in the types of advanced weapons used by Hezbollah in the recent conflict in Lebanon.
The incursion, which began Tuesday night, was Israel’s first along the border strip since withdrawing from Gaza last year. The Israeli military said it found seven completed tunnels, one more than 60 feet deep, and two others in the early stages of construction.
At least two Hamas fighters died during clashes with the troops near the Rafah border crossing.
Israel wants to avoid a repeat of its experience this summer in southern Lebanon, where, in the eyes of many Israelis, too little had been done over the years to prevent Hezbollah from building up an impressive arsenal. That war ended indecisively but felt like a defeat to many Israelis still angry with the nation’s political and military leaders.
“There will be no blind-eye policy in the face of the attempts to transform the Gaza Strip into south Lebanon,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Wednesday as tanks and troops operated along the border strip known as the Philadelphi corridor.
Israeli officials say that in the last year, Palestinian guerrillas hoping to counter Tel Aviv’s vast military edge have smuggled tons of arms and explosives into Gaza through tunnels.
The weapons, the Israelis say, include 122-millimeter Grad rockets, which reach farther and pack a bigger punch than the homemade Kassams that militants have long fired into communities in southern Israel. Militants have launched at least four Grad-type rockets since spring, though they have caused no casualties, say Israeli intelligence officers.
Militants also are believed to have imported dozens of antitank weapons like those Hezbollah’s fighters employed with some success against Israel’s armored forces in Lebanon.
A senior army intelligence official also told the Israeli Cabinet during a private session Sunday that Palestinian groups had smuggled antiaircraft missiles into Gaza, according to Israeli media reports. Such weapons would pose a threat to Israel’s overwhelming airpower, which it has wielded to strike at militants launching rockets into Israel and to back up ground troops.
“Being able to shoot a helicopter down would be considered a great success by Palestinian guerrillas,” said Yiftah Shapir, who analyzes weapons proliferation in the Middle East at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Israeli officials have yet to make public any evidence to support the claims, and there has been no sign yet that Palestinian fighters have used the most sophisticated weaponry they are alleged to have acquired.
Hamas officials deny the smuggling charges and accuse Israel of seeking a pretext for a broad and punishing military operation in the Gaza Strip that is aimed at destabilizing the Hamas-led government.
Palestinians also note that Israel is constantly improving its arsenal.
“Our enemy is all the time using a different kind of forbidden weapons against innocent civilians, and nobody cares about that,” said the spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, who goes by Abu Obeida.
Yusef Rizqah, the Hamas government’s information minister, compared the arms-smuggling allegations to the Bush administration’s claims before the 2003 invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein’s regime was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.
The possibility of wider fighting looms in light of Israeli warnings of intensified military actions aimed at Kassamlaunching crews and weapons storehouses. Officials in Tel Aviv say smuggling has shot up since the Israeli withdrawal last year left Gaza’s southern border in the hands of the Palestinians and Egyptians.
The army has carried out numerous raids and other operations since launching a broad incursion after Palestinian militants tunneled under the border with Israel on June 25, killing two Israeli soldiers and taking a third back into Gaza. The fate of the captured soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, remains unknown.
Israeli officials say Palestinian militants have long sought better weapons, and in some cases succeeded in getting them. But officials and analysts contend that the guerrillas learned from the example of Hezbollah, which suffered heavy losses but nonetheless surprised Israeli commanders with the breadth and sophistication of its arsenal during the 34-day conflict in Lebanon.
Some analysts say that in assessing the Gaza situation, Israel must draw its own lessons from the war in Lebanon. Military commanders say Hezbollah became a formidable combat foe through an ambitious drive to arm itself after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.
“The big debate in the Israeli security system now is whether to go in now, to kill it [the arms buildup] while it is small, or to wait for another year,” said Shalom Harari, a former intelligence officer who is a counter-terrorism researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
Israeli officials estimate that Palestinian militants have smuggled into Gaza thousands of rifles and more than 15 tons of TNT since Israeli soldiers left.
Of concern to Israel is that Palestinian groups could challenge Israel’s traditional advantage on the battlefield, where fighters with limited-range rocket-propelled grenades have faced off against tanks. Officials say Palestinians have smuggled more than two dozen Russian-built Concourse antitank missiles, which can travel more than two miles and penetrate the thickest reinforced armor.
Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, head of research for Israeli army intelligence, told government ministers during the Sunday meeting that antiaircraft missiles also were being smuggled, local media reported.
The newer Grad surface-to-surface rockets can reach up to 18 miles; the Kassams have a range of six or seven miles. The longer range would give militants the ability to target cities such as Ashkelon and Ashdod from sites deeper inside Gaza, officials said.
Upgraded weaponry also could give militants a chance to score what they would deem a public-relations coup in battle, analysts said.
Still, an extended army campaign against suspected arms caches could mean sending forces deep into densely populated areas of Gaza, a move fraught with risk for both sides.
“This is something nobody has a taste for, except for the most extreme right wing. Nobody wants to go back into Gaza,” said Shapir, the weapons-proliferation expert. “The question remains what to do. There is no good answer.”
Times special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.