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Egyptian police raided three arms depots in the central Sinai Peninsula Saturday containing nearly 200 surface-to-air missiles apparently headed for Gaza, the Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported.

Israeli sources confirmed the report and said a considerable number of similar armaments had probably already been transported through Sinai to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Islamist militant groups.

Israeli sources said the weapons appear to be Russian-made SA-7 missiles. The missile, commonly known as the Strela, is not generally considered a highly advanced weapon, but its very presence in Gaza could have far-reaching implications for Israeli air mobility over the coastal territory.

The quantity of missiles in the depots seems to indicate that Palestinian terror groups possess a higher number of projectiles than previously thought, and that in any renewed fighting with Israel, may try to shoot down not only military helicopters and fighter jets, but also civilian aircraft such as crop dusters.

Game changer

Hamas has often touted the depth of its homemade, short-range Qassam rockets, but has not yet said whether its arsenal also includes anti-aircraft weapons like the SA-7. The group's military wing, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has never confirmed it has long-range missiles, which with their 60-kilometer range could strike at the greater Tel Aviv area.

According to Ma'an, one of the arms caches, containing 100 missiles, was uncovered in Al-Hasana in the northern Sinai. A second depot of 90 projectiles was discovered in the central Ad-Daqqaq region, and a third, containing 1,500 bullets of various calibers, was found in nearby Nakhl.

The news agency reported that Egyptian forces also uncovered several secret weapons stashes in the city of Rafah, just three kilometers from the Egypt-Gaza border, that included around 10 anti-tank mines. They also found two stores of machine guns and explosives in Sheikh Zuwayid.

In recent months, Egypt has stepped up its operations in the Gaza border region, and nearly every week reports emerge of Egyptian forces unearthing weapons-smuggling tunnels into Gaza.

One of Cairo's deepest concerns is that Iran and Syria - the chief sources of weapons bound for Gaza - could arm radical Islamist factions in the Sinai Peninsula against President Hosni Mubarak's government. Israeli experts also believe that Tehran and Damascus have sent the ordnance in a bid to give Hamas more advanced weapons of the kind employed by Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Egyptian Bedouin and Palestinian tunnel operators in the Rafah area have been able to penetrate Egypt's so-called iron wall in several places, and through it, to dig tunnels for continued weapons smuggling.

The Palestinian news agency SAFA recently released photographs of smugglers using welding equipment to pierce large holes in the wall, even removing several large iron plates. The wall, built along the Philadelphi Route dividing Sinai and Gaza, has been at the center of Egypt's attempts to stem the illicit transport of weapons.

Hamas has waged a fierce public-relations campaign against the wall since its construction began, fearing it might bring weapons trafficking into Gaza to a halt. In recent weeks, however, Hamas has almost entirely stopped criticizing Cairo for its efforts to stop smuggling.