CITY (AFP) - Hamas has thousands of fighters ready to take on Israel and has upgraded its arsenal, experts say. But the war launched by Israel in Gaza will be the supreme test of the movement that has ruled the territory since June 2007.
Hamas picked up a stockpile of US-made small weapons and ammunition left by the rival Fatah group of Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas when it was routed in a battle for control of Gaza in 2007, according to a report on Hamas prepared for a western nation.
The diplomatic report and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the weapons allowed Hamas to upgrade its arsenal and strengthen its control of the enclave of 1.5 million people. The Washington Institute called it a "military bonanza."
Hamas has also separately acquired anti-tank missiles and learned from Hezbollah's approach during its 2006 war with Israel in southern Lebanon " mining roads and resorting to guerrilla tactics. Its main weapon against Israel, however, has been the use of Qassam and Chinese-made Grad rockets. Israel says thousands have been fired into its territory since Hamas took over " and that is why it had to send troops into Gaza.
Even since Israel launched airstrikes against Gaza on December 27 to silence the rockets, more than 500 have been fired towards southern Israel, hitting towns such Ashdod, 30 kilometres from the border, and Ashkelon, 13 kilometres north of Gaza.
Shin Beth security service chief, Yuval Diskin, told the Israeli cabinet this week that Hamas now has rockets with a range of 40 kilometres, capable of reaching Ashdod and Beersheva, Israeli media reported. The Israeli military believes the components used to build hundreds of rockets were smuggled into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt " scores of which were hit in the Israeli airstrikes. But the Israeli military has still warned the public that Hamas may increase the number of rockets fired in coming days.
Hamas can count on about 13,000 fighters, according to Israeli experts, with a hard core of about 1,000 in its Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, which they say have been trained to a level similar to Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, said, "Hamas forces have been trained in Iran and by Hezbollah abroad. They are well organised but they still haven't faced a real test."
Israel's last massive offensive in Gaza, triggered after the Gaza fighters seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid in June 2006, killed more than 400 Palestinians and just three Israeli soldiers.
But Inbar said Israel would have to face intense guerrilla warfare with roadside bombs and other booby traps. He predicted dozens of Israeli soldiers would die in the campaign " though three or four Hamas fighters would die for each Israeli.
Reserve major general Yaacov Amidror too said there could be a much higher toll, on both sides. "The army will have to go in with much more force. The price will be paid by Gaza's local population because Israel is preparing for war against a growing force that has sophisticated weapons and is well entrenched," Amidror told AFP.