Israeli concern at Hamas arms grab

Israel is increasingly concerned that sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry looted from Libya is making its way to Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip, an Israeli official has said.

“We have specific information that weapons from Libya are being smuggled into the Gaza Strip,” an Israeli official said on condition of anonymity. “We know that Hamas is eager to improve its capabilities, specifically anti-aircraft and anti-tank capabilities.”

“We are worried that Hamas could achieve capabilities that previously they have had only limited access to.”

Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza, came into possession of the SA-7 surface-to-air missile last year, according to Israeli assessments, but officials believe that Gaza-based militants have obtained more sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry in recent months, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported. Officials have not provided evidence for their claims.

Nevertheless, the suggestion that more advanced weapons - such as the SA-18 or SA-24 Grinch missiles that could bring down a passenger plane - may have reached Gaza would significantly raise the threat to Israel posed by Gaza-based militants, who frequently fire rudimentary rockets into Israel, but rarely cause casualties.

Missiles such as the SA-24, hundreds of which have reportedly disappeared from Libya, could also pose a threat to Israeli air force planes and drones patrolling over Gaza’s airspace, but it is the threat to commercial aircraft that will potentially cause most concern. Israel is currently developing expensive anti-missile technology that could be fitted onto its civilian planes.

The US is increasingly concerned by reports of missing Libyan arms, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently promised an $11m million aid package to the Libyans that would include assistance in finding and destroying abandoned weapons, particularly the many surface-to-air missiles that are unaccounted for, in post-war Libya.

Early on in the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, it was clear that poorly-guarded government munitions stores were being regularly raided by Libyan rebels for their own use or, as it is now thought, by smugglers intending to sell them on to external militant groups.

Egyptian officials confirmed recently that they had intercepted several groups of smugglers transporting Libyan weapons, including anti-aircraft missile launchers, overland towards the Egyptian border with Israel, the New York Times reported.

Israeli officials have voiced their concerns over security in the Sinai as post-revolutionary Egypt allowed smuggling by the Bedouin to flourish in the vast and relatively lawless area.

Palestinian militants in Gaza have so far fired mainly crude rockets and mortars that rarely, if ever, hit their target, although Israeli officials have repeatedly warned that Gaza-based militants have rockets capable of hitting the bustling metropolis of Tel Aviv. A Grad rocket fired from Gaza landed harmlessly on Wednesday night, the first attack since a prisoner swap last week.