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Israeli Official Warns of Growing Hamas Military Threat

A senior Israeli official has warned of a growing military threat from the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas. Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter says half-a-million Israelis could soon be within the range of Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza, up from 200,000 today. Dichter told Israel Radio that Hamas military capability is almost on par with a sovereign state.

He said Hamas has already increased the range of its rockets to hit the major city of Ashkelon. That capability was highlighted when a rocket crashed into a shopping center in Ashkelon on Wednesday, as U.S. President George Bush was visiting Jerusalem. Several people were seriously injured.

Defense officials say Hamas is smuggling in longer-range rockets through tunnels under the border with Egypt, and that these longer-range rockets could threaten the cities of Ashdod and Beersheba.

Dichter hinted at an Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

The strategic goal, he said, should be "to destroy the Hamas arsenal of terror."

Israel has been mulling a Gaza offensive for months in response to daily rocket attacks. But it is reluctant to invade Gaza, fearing high casualties among Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians.

The tension in Gaza points to the difficulties facing President Bush as he holds talks with moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this weekend in Egypt. Mr. Abbas rules the West Bank and is negotiating with Israel, but Hamas ousted his forces from Gaza nearly a year ago. Hamas supports armed struggle to liberate Palestine and says peace talks with Israel are a waste of time.