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Hamas has sent dozens of its members to Iran to receive military training, and hundreds more are preparing to go, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday.
Diskin told the panel the training was part of a trend of Hamas and Islamic Jihad strengthening their ties with Teheran.
"These men who have been sent to Iran for training are not training for periods of a week, two weeks or a month, but for long-term, high-quality training," he said. "They are returning with knowledge of intelligence and weaponry that they did not have before."
Gaza preparing for IDF incursion
While only Hamas members were currently going to Iran for training, Islamic Jihad was also interested in deepening ties with Iran in order to strengthen its militia in the Gaza Strip.
Both terrorist organizations were using tunnels from Sinai to smuggle weapons and people in and out of Gaza, said Diskin.
"We are seeing all of these groups interested in rebuilding. They all want to be more effective," he said. "They are using the current lull in violence to rebuild."
Diskin said that 31 tons of dynamite were smuggled into Gaza during 2006, up from 5 tons in 2005.
He also said that 50 terrorist attacks were currently being planned in the Gaza Strip, but ultimately meant to be launched from the West Bank. "The more time that passes, the more difficult it will be to stop these organizations," said Diskin.
He said the Shin Bet projected that if the smuggling was not stopped, terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip would develop sophisticated rockets with ranges of 13 to 20 km., bringing bringing Ashkelon within easy reach.
"The longer they continue to develop these weapons, the better they'll get. It is still possible for us to stop this but it will become more difficult in time," said Diskin.
Asked about the chances of Hamas and Fatah overcoming their differences and forming a national unity government, Diskin described the relations between the rival factions as a "ticking bomb." He said that it was possible that violent confrontations would erupt before the March 23 deadline for Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to announce his new cabinet.
The committee had been given several briefings recently in which high-ranking members of the defense establishment expressed concern about the growing trend of Hamas fighters being trained in Iran.
MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) called on the IDF to increase its operations in the Gaza strip. "Israel shouldn't deceive itself that the current lull in the Gaza Strip is indicative of peaceful intentions, but rather that Hamas members there were using the time to rearm themselves and to smuggle weapons," Steinitz said.
Also on Tuesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went to talk to soldiers and officers of the Gaza Division and to get a first hand feeling of the situation along the border, looking into the Strip from several look-out positions. He also went to the Kerem Shalom region, where Cpl. Gilad Schalit was kidnapped in June, to assess the situation there.
Meeting with a Beduin unit, he said he knew what they were dealing with everyday. "I know how hard it is. I completely understand what you mean when you say that it is better for you to be on this side of the fence, rather than on the other side of the fence, because from this side you can see what they want to plan ahead of time," he said.
Olmert said there was definitely a systematic attempt to infiltrate into Israel through the border fence. "The distances are short, the possibility to dig tunnels is well known and problematic, and we need to find ways to deal with that," he said.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.