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Gaza arms buildup brings Israeli raids

After this summer's fight in Lebanon, Israeli officials are warning of a weapons buildup in Gaza, and are starting preemptive assaults on Palestinian militants.

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The newspaper headlines here read like a weather report with a clear forecast: The winds of war are intensifying over the Gaza Strip, the central battlefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since late last week, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have killed 21 Palestinians; Israeli officials said 18 were "terrorist" militants. Over the past few weeks, there's been a steady resumption of Palestinian Qassam rocket launches into Israel, most causing no major injuries.

This latest round of attacks comes amid widely circulated Israeli reports of a buildup of more sophisticated weapons in Gaza, which could put nearby Israeli communities in the line of fire.

But the return of the violent volley, which crescendoed into outright warfare last June following the capture of an Israeli corporal by Palestinian militants, could be different this time. The lessons of the war between Israel and Hizbullah this summer have led the Israeli establishment to some new conclusions: Waiting while a neighbor arms itself is out; preemptive attacks may be the new norm.

"Israel cannot afford to let Gaza turn into a southern Lebanon," says Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. "The link is that the longer Israel waits, the more likely that they'll have the same abilities for longer-range and better weapons in Gaza."

For Israel's strategic-minded right, the major error before the war in Lebanon was allowing Hizbullah to build up a large arsenal of short- and medium-range weapons.

Now Israel is concerned that Hamas is trying to emulate the relative successes Hizbullah achieved in the recent war, in which the Iranian-backed militants inflicted a high number of casualties on the Israeli army. The head of the IDF's intelligence research department told the Israeli cabinet Sunday that Hamas is smuggling advanced weaponry into Gaza, including antiaircraft and antitank missiles.

The weapons, warned Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, whose comments were provided to reporters after the meeting, might make it more difficult for the IDF to launch future ground operations in Gaza. The deputy head of Shin Bet, Israel's internal security agency, also told the cabinet that outside weapons experts had been smuggled into Gaza in recent days.

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