TEL AVIV, Israel – A senior Israeli intelligence official warned Sunday that Hamas rulers in the Gaza Strip have rockets that can travel 80 kilometers (50 miles) — a longer range than previously reported, which would put the coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv within range of its launchers.
The official blamed Egypt, saying it was not doing enough to stem smuggling through a network of tunnels along the relatively short border between its Sinai desert and the Palestinian territory. An Egyptian security official reached for comment maintained that Egypt was combating the smuggling successfully.
The Israeli intelligence official said that Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, is "making very big efforts to build up their military capabilities ... building up their rocket capabilities in the Gaza Strip, and all this is happening because of one important thing: the smuggling of weapons through Egypt to the Gaza Strip."
Egypt, along with Israel, imposed an embargo on Gaza in June 2007 after Hamas militants took control of the area, but the Israelis and United States have repeatedly urged Egypt to do more to prevent weapons smuggling into the territory.
"Most of the tunnels that are used to smuggle these rockets and explosives and other weapons are in an area of three to four kilometers," or up to 2.5 miles, said the official, who is privy to high-level intelligence information and briefed foreign correspondents on condition that he not be identified.
"We see it in our intelligence. We have photos of this. In many places we can show photos of Egyptian soldiers located less than 20 meters (yards) from the opening of a tunnel, and the tunnel is operating under his eyes, under his control, and nobody is doing anything about it."
"Egypt can stop all this smuggling of weapons within 24 hours if they want to do it," he said. "There are enough Egyptian troops and policemen ... located on this border."
Israeli lawmaker Arieh Eldad, a member of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who has access to classified material, confirmed the official's assessment.
"Egypt is not a country that large quantities of weapons can enter without the authorities knowing," he told The Associated Press, charging that Egypt allows Hamas to acquire arms in exchange for the Islamic militants leaving Egypt alone.
"They could easily train police to look for the smugglers and they don't," Eldad said.
A senior Egyptian intelligence official said Egyptian security has been performing its duties successfully at the border with Gaza. He said they have intercepted 50 tons of explosives in the past two years and have been praised by Israeli intelligence for their work.
The Gaza-Egypt border is only about 8 miles (13 kilometers) long.
Egypt beefed up its presence at the border after Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in September 2005 and handed it over to Palestinian control. The smugglers responded by digging longer tunnels, penetrating past the immediate border area.
The Egyptians have found 675 tunnels since the beginning of this year, the security official said.
The United States has helped Egypt with advanced equipment to find out the tunnels through uncovering the underground movement and several Egyptians were trained in the U.S. to use these equipment. Egypt also built a steel wall along the border to prevent smugglers from penetrating into Egypt, though some smugglers have cut through it.
Although Hamas has largely halted its rocket fire since a fierce Israeli military offensive in early 2009, the Israeli security official said the group's aim remained to strike at Israeli cities.
"Today there are rockets which are reaching 70 and 80 kilometers (45 to 50 miles) in the Gaza Strip ... so it means that we can sit here and talk and a rocket can fall on our heads within five minutes," the official said.
That range would mean that rockets could reach Tel Aviv, Israel's business and cultural hub. About 2 million people live in the Tel Aviv area, which was targeted by Saddam Hussein's Iraq with Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War.
The assessment indicated that Hamas has improved its capabilities in recent months. Past assessments have said Hamas rocket range was closer to 60 or 70 kilometers, or roughly 40 to 45 miles.
On Sunday Israel's Channel 10 TV showed video of Israel's "Iron Dome" system knocking down rockets. The system is designed to protect Israel from rocket fire from Gaza and Lebanon. However, deployment has been delayed several times and now appears at least months away.
The official charged that corruption is undermining any efforts to stop the smuggling from Egypt to Gaza. He said Egyptian officers and soldiers are being bribed to look the other way.
Eldad confirmed that.
"When an arms convoy goes through Egypt, lots of people are bribed along the way," he said. "It's easy to bribe the guards and police on the border."
On the other hand, the official said, intelligence cooperation with Egypt was otherwise effective: "In other aspects we see Egypt, when they have concrete intelligence about terror attacks ... they are reacting most of the time very fast and trying to prevent these attacks."
The Israeli intelligence official also said that Hamas' rival, the Palestinian Authority, was making a genuine and successful effort to maintain security and prevent attacks on Israel in the West Bank.
But he warned it was dependent on progress in the currently stalled peace talks with Israel — and on the presence in office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The official added that Israeli intelligence believes that it remains the long-range goal of Hamas to destroy Israel and to establish an Islamic "caliphate," not only in the Middle East but in Europe as well.
Associated Press writer Ashraf Sweilam contributed to this report from Rafah, Egypt.