Israel’s intelligence community has determined that Iran launched a crash program to form a Hamas-led Palestinian army.

Iran has been training up to 500 Hamas operatives as combat commanders and soldiers. They said the Hamas fighters would serve as the core of any Hamas-led Palestinian army over the next year.

“When you have 500 people trained in modern warfare, with advanced equipment, they can serve as trainers for a full-sized army,” an official said.

On Tuesday, Israel Security Agency Director Yuval Diskin said Hamas has sent hundreds of fighters to Iran for a military training course. Diskin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the Hamas fighters were receiving “high-quality training” that would last about six months.

“Hundreds of Hamas members have been sent to Iran for training, and not training periods of a week, two weeks or a month, but for long-term, high-quality training,” Knesset member Zvi Hendel, a member of the committee, quoted Diskin as saying.

Diskin said the Iranian plan envisioned the formation of a Palestinian army by 2009, with missiles that could reach targets throughout southern Israel. He said Hamas has been training forces the size of companies and battalions in the Gaza Strip.

At the same time, Diskin said, Hamas has sought to build a military infrastructure in the West Bank. The ISA chief said Hamas, with Iran’s help, wants to assemble Katyusha-class rockets in the West Bank that could strike Tel Aviv and other major cities in central Israel.

“If these weapons leak from the Gaza Strip to Judea and Samaria [West Bank], it means that every Israeli city – Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – could come under possible threat of projectile weapons,” Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Tsahi Hanegbi said. “This is not the case because the Israeli military is in Judea and Samaria.”

Officials said Iran has already trained scores of Hamas fighters for a Palestinian army directed by Tehran. They said the army would be comparable in skills to the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah and contain special forces, logistics, engineering and anti-tank squads.

“Iran and Hamas got married in 2001,” Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, Diskin’s predecessor, said. “Iran tried to build and base this coordination through Hezbollah. But Hamas refused and insisted on direct Hamas links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian Intelligence Ministry.”

The key capabilities of the Hamas force has been weapons tunnels and improvised explosive devices. Officials said Hamas has built a network of tunnels throughout the Gaza Strip.

“The picture drawn for us is grave,” Knesset Parliament member Yuval Steinitz, deputy chairman of the committee, said.

Steinitz claims that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has been cooperating with the Hamas military effort. The Israeli parliamentarian said Abbas plays the “good cop with whom we talk peace while over his shoulder stands Hamas, the bad cop.”

“I call on the government to launch Operation Defensive Shield-2 in the Gaza Strip,” Steinitz said, in reference to the monthlong Israeli operation in the West Bank in 2002.

New Group Claims Attacks On Internet Cafes

A new Islamic group has claimed responsibility for bombings of Internet cafes in the Gaza Strip.

A group named “Swords of Truth in the Land of Steadfastness” claimed responsibility for the bombings of at least two Internet cafes in the Gaza Strip in March. The group said the current campaign has targeted what it termed “the symbols of corruption in the Gaza Strip.”

“The group will not make any concessions regarding the punishment for violations of God’s laws,” Abu Shueib Al Maqdisi, identified as the commander of the group, said on Monday.

The statement marked the first claim of responsibility for what PA security officials acknowledged was an al-Qaida-aligned campaign against Western influences in the Gaza Strip. Over the last month, Internet cafes and stores that sold Western music – several of them believed owned by senior PA officials – have been bombed or their Palestinian owners abducted.

“We will reach all those who were involved with the individuals who were punished, because we have proof and their confessions,” Al Maqdisi said. “Their rank will not protect them from punishment.”

The Islamic group said Internet cafes would be forced to close after 10 p.m. The statement described them as houses of prostitution.

Al Maqdisi also warned women in Gaza Strip universities. He said his group has collected a list of girls deemed “sluts and corrupting others at the universities.”

The statement said these girls would be “punished” unless their families did so first. The group did not elaborate.

Palestinian Authority officials said warnings by so-called al-Qaida-aligned groups have been issued over the last year.

Iran, Syria Sign Defense Pact

Iran and Syria have signed an agreement to expand military and defense cooperation.

The two countries have signed a memorandum of understanding for what officials said included military and defense cooperation. The MoU was signed on Monday in Damascus by visiting Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Najar and his Syrian counterpart, Hassan Turkmani.

An official statement said the two countries would increase cooperation on military issues. The statement did not elaborate. An Iranian source told the official Kuwait News Agency that the MoU marked a milestone in the effort to enhance military cooperation with Syria. He said the agreement would pave the way for a regional defense system headed by Iran and Syria.

Earlier, officials said Najar and Turkmani discussed joint arms production and military training. They said Iran has offered to significantly increase efforts to bolster the Syrian military in any war against Israel.

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