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Gaza arms buildup brings Israeli raids

After this summer's fight in Lebanon, Israeli officials are warning of a weapons buildup in Gaza, and are starting preemptive assaults on Palestinian militants.

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Israeli-Palestinian fighting in Gaza has undergone gradual changes since Israel exited the coastal territory a year ago this September after 38 years of occupation. Unlike the long military campaigns of the past, Israeli forces now tend to go into Gaza for three-day missions and then get out.

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There, in comparison to hilly Lebanon, Israel continues to have the upper hand. Gaza is flat and sandy, making it more difficult for militants to ambush Israeli soldiers and to hide rocket launchers in trees or craggy slopes. But Palestinian digging of underground tunnels – one of which was used by militants to kill two Israeli soldiers on June 25 and capture Cpl. Gilad Shalit – frustrates Israeli attempts to preempt attacks or weapons smuggling.

Ziad Abu Amar, a leading Palestinian legislator in Gaza, views Israel's charge of Palestinian smuggling as hypocritical, given the reasonable assumption that Israel is also beefing up its weapons capabilities in the wake of the summer of war in Gaza, in northern Israel, and in Lebanon.

"Smuggling will happen. We shouldn't be surprised that Hamas is trying to strengthen itself and acquire weapons," says Dr. Abu Amar, who wrote an academic book on Hamas and maintains good ties with the movement, but has declared himself an independent.

"The Israelis claim that new types of weapons and larger amounts are being smuggled, but no one can ascertain what they are. What is the amount? What kind are they talking about? Under the circumstances of occupation and continuing fighting, the Israelis try to upgrade their military arsenal – this is part of the conflict – and so those inside will also try to strengthen the capabilities. The Israelis can't tell the Palestinians, 'Don't fight and acquire weapons,' while they are fighting and acquiring weapons."

The hope that Palestinians hold for more stable days ahead has rested on the concept of a unity government between Hamas and Fatah, allowing the latter – which reached the historic Oslo Peace Accords with Israel in the mid-1990s – to direct negotiations. But that idea, supported by Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, has yet to come to fruition. Abu Amar, a key player in trying to bridge the Palestinian political chasm, says he is not sure it will happen. But he is sure that if it doesn't, violence will fill the void.

"We got entangled in another circle of attacks and counterattacks, rockets and retribution. This is what happens when there is no political horizon to speak of," he says.

"When we were talking about a national unity government that might help end the siege," he says, referring to the multinational freeze on financial aid to the Hamas-led government, "we hoped that might help in a positive direction. If it is blocked, the natural conclusion is to turn to another course of action. Which leaves it open to all possibilities."

Including, says an influential Israeli commentator, the start of a third intifada. He wrote in Monday's Haaretz newspaper that the "unofficial truce [or calm] between Israel and Hamas is evaporating, and the violent hostility between them has become open and clear." The two are on a collision course, he says, and when the crash comes, "it is not going to come as a surprise."