Image: Palestinian girl holds balloons
Muhammed Muheisen  /  AP
A Palestinian girl, holds balloons as she walks next to a painted wall in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday, March 29.
updated 3/29/2009 12:58:54 PM ET 2009-03-29T16:58:54

Palestinian militants have smuggled nearly 70 tons of explosives and bomb-making materials and other weapons into Gaza since Israel ended an offensive meant to choke off the arms flow, a senior Israeli defense official said Sunday.

The assessment by the chief of Israel's internal security service, Yuval Diskin, reinforced a growing feeling among Israelis that the government ended the war too soon.

Diskin told the Cabinet that since the three-week military operation ended Jan. 18, Gaza militants have smuggled into the territory 22 tons of explosives, 45 tons of raw materials for producing bombs, dozens of rockets, hundreds of mortar shells and dozens of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

Gaza's porous border with Egypt
The weapons are coming in through Gaza's porous border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, despite improved Egyptian interdiction, Diskin said. His remarks were reported by meeting participants who spoke on condition of anonymity because the session was closed.

There was no way to verify his assessment. Using sophisticated technology and human informants, Israel has kept close tabs on Gaza since it withdrew its forces from the area in 2005.

Israel launched its air and ground assault in late December in an effort to stop rocket and mortar attacks on Israel from Hamas-ruled Gaza and stanch the stream of arms reaching the territory through underground tunnels from Egypt. More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, including 926 civilians, the Palestinians say. Thirteen Israelis also died.

The attacks from Gaza have dropped off considerably but have not stopped: The military reported Sunday that a total of 185 rockets and mortars were fired since the military campaign ended. But the threat of escalation remains, as the reports of continued smuggling suggested.

"It is testimony that next time, we should go to something more complete in order to prevent the rearmament of Hamas," said Yuval Steinitz, a close associate of incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"In the long term, Israel cannot agree to the establishment of an Iranian military base 50 or 60 kilometers from Tel Aviv," said Steinitz, a lawmaker in Netanyahu's Likud party. "Sooner or later, we shall have to put an end to it," he added, without elaborating.

'Terror infrastructure'
Israel accuses Iran of funding and arming Hamas.

Netanyahu, who is expected to take office on Tuesday, has said the Gaza offensive did not go far enough and Hamas should be toppled. However, he stopped short of saying he would attack Gaza again to bring that about.

During its Gaza offensive, Israeli warplanes destroyed dozens of smuggling tunnels, though many were quickly repaired. Egyptian-brokered negotiations on a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel centered in part on instituting measures to stop the smuggling.

Last week, however, Israel came under suspicion of having dramatically escalated its attempts to cut off the flow of arms to Gaza militants with the emergence of reports that aircraft attacked weapons convoys in Sudan last month. Israeli officials have not commented publicly about the reports.

However, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has hinted that Israel did launch the strikes, saying the Israeli military would hit "terror infrastructure" wherever it may be.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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