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The Israel Defense Forces is very concerned about Hamas' growing strength in the Gaza Strip, but not enough to lead it to ask for permission to carry out a large-scale military operation there, a senior military source said.

Moreover, it seems that the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the crushing of Fatah there has made a confrontation with Israel more remote. Hamas is not interested in a direct military clash, while it is difficult to rally domestic support in Israel - both among the public and politicians - that would enable a major offensive, even though it is recognized that Hamas is significantly improving its military capabilities,

The main reason for the Israeli reluctance to launch a major operation has to do with concerns about losses. The entry of large ground forces into the Gaza Strip will result in casualties and a massive bombing of Sderot and the communities in the western Negev. If the political leadership and the General Staff are uncertain that after such a military effort it will be possible to gain a significant change in the balance of power with Hamas, there will be no operation.

A senior military source offered reporters troubling details regarding Hamas' arming in the Gaza Strip. The Philadelphi Route, he said, is entirely out of control. The deterioration that began after Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005 has now become fully legitimized in the eyes of the Palestinians following Hamas' takeover a month ago. Smuggling, meanwhile, has transformed into an operation of importing arms and ammunition. Recently, 20 tons of explosives were imported through Sinai and Rafah.

Israeli intelligence estimates hold that Hamas has a small number of anti-tank missiles, as well as wire-guided Sagger-type missiles (not as advanced as those used by Hezbollah last year), which are much more sophisticated than the RPGs normally in use in Gaza.

At the same time there has been a steady improvement in the group's arsenal of Qassam rockets It is fair to assume that in the near future the organization will also have Katyushas, or locally manufactured rockets with a similar range (about 20 kilometers), and with larger warheads.

The senior military source said the improvement in Hamas' capabilities in the past two years was equivalent to a "generational leap," which in military jargon means a significant advance.

The same source said Hamas now has a growing army that is beginning to look more like a "guerrilla force." It has about 13,000 armed and obedient men who take their orders from an established organizational structure divided into four brigades. Its military doctrine is centered on an ability to carry out sophisticated attacks and defend from fortified positions, with the aim of causing maximum casualties among an invading Israeli force.

The army is certain that Israel and Hamas are on a collision course. They also say that the more time passes and Hamas grows in strength - including expertise acquired by its operatives in training camps in Iran - the more difficult it will be to deal with it.

Nonetheless, the IDF's operations in Gaza are fundamentally defensive. During the past three months, the army initiated close to 50 operations at the battalion and brigade levels, but all occurred within distances between 500 meters and two kilometers from the border fence. In such depth, the aim is to preempt Hamas militants trying to carry out attacks close to the fence, and to make arrests.

A large-scale operation is unlikely in the near future. However ominous the Hamas threat may be, it is nowhere near the capabilities of Hezbollah or Syria.