POSTED: Monday, October 18, 2010 - 5:24pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 8:57am
JERUSALEM – Gaza's Hamas rulers have obtained anti-aircraft missiles, Israel's prime minister said Monday, in a potentially game-changing development that could threaten the Israeli air force's ability to strike at the Islamic militant group.
Israeli aircraft have long dominated the skies over Gaza, striking suspected Hamas military installations and assassinating dozens of wanted militants. The Israeli air force played a key role in a fierce three-week offensive in Gaza early last year, which began with airstrikes that killed hundreds of Hamas fighters. The air raids also destroyed vast amounts of infrastructure and killed hundreds of civilians.
Speaking to his Likud Party, Netanyahu disclosed that Israel's aerial freedom has been compromised by the new weaponry, presumably smuggled into Gaza through tunnels connected to neighboring Egypt. He said any future peace agreement would have to include security arrangements to deal with the threat.
Israel believes that despite its military offensive and Egypt's stated goal of halting arms smuggling, Hamas has managed to restock its arsenal with longer-range missiles that can strike the heart of Israel.
Netanyahu's assessment was the first time an Israeli official has openly said Hamas also possesses anti-aircraft weaponry, though intelligence officials have privately suspected that was the case.
"The security problem is not just the new rockets that will enter the area and will threaten city centers. I don't know if you know this, but today we are struggling to fly near Gaza because they have anti-aircraft missiles there," Netanyahu said.
He warned that the missiles could also threaten air traffic at Israel's international airport. "Israel's security needs are real, the solutions have to be real, not on paper. We need to find long-term solutions that give Israel security," he said.
Netanyahu gave no evidence to support his claim, and aides would not discuss details about the missiles.
The Israeli military refused to comment on Netanyahu's remarks.
Security officials said they have long assumed Hamas has smuggled in Russian-made Strela anti-aircraft missiles, presumably supplied by Iran. Some versions of the Strela are shoulder-fired and are designed to target planes, helicopters and drones at ranges of around two and a half miles (four kilometers), according to the military information website GlobalSecurity.org.
Hamas has yet to deploy the weapons, but Israeli pilots fly over Gaza with the assumption that the missiles are there, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity according to military protocol.
Hamas refused to say whether it has any anti-aircraft weapons and accused the Israeli leader of spreading propaganda to justify future attacks in Gaza.
"These remarks reflect the intention of the Zionist enemy to commit more crimes and more future aggression against our people, taking advantage of the American support and the Arab silence," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.
"We emphasize that the Palestinian people have the right to defend themselves against any future aggression and this is a national and holy duty," he added.
Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said the militant group had learned its lessons from the last battle.
"If they want war, we are ready for it. But it will not be like the last war in 2009 in which we realized the strength and weakness of our enemy," he said.
Hamas has fired thousands of rockets and missiles into Israel in recent years, though it has largely refrained from attacks since Israel's offensive.
On Sunday, an Israeli airstrike killed two Gaza militants who Israel says were preparing to fire rockets over the Gaza border. The Israeli military said more than 165 rockets and mortar shells have been fired at Israel from Gaza so far this year, a significant drop from the numbers before the 2009 war.
Hamas is a not a party to the newly restarted Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which are deadlocked over Israel's refusal to extend restrictions on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank.
In a rare interview to an Israeli television station, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared to make a significant gesture toward Israel. He said the Palestinians would be willing to end all historic claims against Israel if a Palestinian state is established on lands captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war: the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
Once the Palestinians have established their state inside the 1967 borders, "there is another important thing to end, the conflict, and we are ready for that, to end the historic demands," Abbas told Israel's Channel 1.
Though Abbas did not elaborate, this has typically alluded to the Palestinian demand for Palestinian refugees to have a right to return to their homelands inside what is now Israel.
Israel fears the Palestinians will press for refugee rights even after the creation of their state instead of settling in the future Palestine, thus undermining Israel's Jewish character.
Netanyahu said he heard Abbas' words, but preferred to have the conversation face-to-face.