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Israeli official says Iran training Hamas

The militant group denies the intelligence chief's assertion, the first such government claim echoing rumors.

March 06, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

TEL AVIV — The head of Israel's domestic intelligence agency said Monday that Iran was giving advanced military training to members of Hamas, a move he called a "strategic danger" to the Jewish state.

Yuval Diskin, the director of Shin Bet, said that the militant movement had dispatched "tens" of fighters from the Gaza Strip to Iran for "months, maybe years" of instruction, and that Iran had promised to train hundreds more.

A Hamas spokesman denied the assertion. The training, if confirmed, would mean that Iran is expanding its alliance with Hamas, which Israel and the United States list as a terrorist organization and which has controlled the Palestinian Authority government for nearly a year.

Since Western nations cut off funding to the Palestinian government last spring because of Hamas' ascendance, Iran has given it at least $120 million in aid.

Reports of Iran training Hamas militants, previously attributed to unnamed Israeli and Palestinian officials, have been circulating for weeks. Diskin's remark at a rare briefing for foreign reporters was the first such official claim and echoed a drumbeat of charges by the Bush administration that Iran exports terrorism.

The intelligence chief, a burly man with a shaved head, said Hamas was continuing to stockpile weapons smuggled into the Gaza Strip through Egypt. But he said Hamas' development of arms factories in Gaza and its alleged training in Iran were greater long-term threats to Israel.

Mushir Masri, a Hamas member of the Palestinian parliament, said Diskin was spreading a false allegation about training to undermine Hamas and build a case for renewed attacks in Gaza.

Israel fought a five-month offensive in Gaza last year after Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid. Diskin said Hamas was taking advantage of a cease-fire accord reached with Israel last November to prepare for a future military confrontation. The soldier is still being held.

Whether Israel continues to abide by the cease-fire depends on Egypt's ability to stop weapons smuggling into Gaza, Diskin said.

With support from the Bush administration, Israel has tried for months to isolate Hamas politically by strengthening Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah movement and engaging him in peace talks.

That strategy hit a roadblock last month when Fatah, seeking to end months of armed clashes with Hamas, agreed at a meeting in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to join the Palestinian government as a minority partner, despite having failed to persuade Hamas to recognize Israel and forswear violence against the Jewish state.

"Hamas is the big winner in the Mecca agreement," Diskin said in one of the starkest official Israeli assessments to date.

The accord, he noted, keeps the prime minister's job in the hands of Hamas, along with ministries involved in education and social welfare, which are crucial to spreading the movement's influence. Diskin predicted that Saudi Arabia's role in the accord and its pledge of financial support would not shake Iran's influence over Hamas, which he said would happily take aid from rival Middle East powers.

The intelligence chief offered an unusually blunt public assessment of Abbas. Israel's Palestinian ally "doesn't have a clear strategy ... doesn't know how to run a political movement," he said, and has allowed Fatah to "disintegrate" rather than building its military prowess to gain the upper hand over Hamas.

Diskin said it was still possible that the power-sharing accord would collapse amid lingering factional bloodshed and disagreements over who will control Hamas' and Fatah's various security services and militias. He said the rival factions were amassing forces against each other -- a "ticking time bomb inside this unity government."

On Monday, the two sides waged a gun battle for control of a police training compound in Gaza City. Meanwhile, Ismail Haniyeh, who has retained his job as prime minister, said negotiations on the makeup of a new Cabinet would take at least another two weeks.

*

boudreaux@latimes.com

Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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