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Iran providing advanced training to Hamas, Israel says

TEL AVIV, Israel—A year-old international campaign to isolate the Hamas-led Palestinian government unintentionally has pushed the militant Islamic group into a dangerous and growing alliance with Iran, Israel's top internal-intelligence chief said Monday.

Yuval Diskin, the director of Israel's Shin Bet security agency, said closer ties between Hamas and Iran were one of the "bad fruits" of a U.S. and Israeli-led economic boycott of the Palestinian government. The boycott gave Iran an opportunity to give Hamas millions of dollars in aid and military training as part of a campaign to destabilize Israel and the Middle East, Diskin said.

"Hamas headed toward the open window of Iran and this maybe strengthened the ties," Diskin told a small group of Western journalists. "All the doors were closed, and they went to the window."

For more than a year, Israel and the United States have refused to provide aid to the Palestinian government because of Hamas' refusal to renounce its long-standing pledge to destroy Israel. European countries have joined the boycott.

The economic blockade has hobbled the Palestinian government, as intended. But it also created an opening for Iran to increase its influence by stepping in to shore up Hamas, Diskin said.

Iran has pledged to provide Hamas with $150 million in aid. In addition, Diskin said, tens of Hamas militants have been sent to Iran for advanced military training, and Hamas would like to send hundreds more to learn to build and operate advanced weaponry.

"I see it as the strategic danger," Diskin said of the training.

Diskin's remarks in a rare on-the-record briefing reflected the growing anxiety of leaders throughout the Middle East and the United States over Tehran's expanding influence.

There was no way to assess the accuracy of his claims independently. They came as the Bush administration also has accused Iran of providing powerful new bombs to Shiite Muslim militia groups in Iraq and as U.S. and Israeli officials continue to press for international action against Iran's nuclear programs.

Diskin provided no specifics on how Israelis knew that Hamas members were traveling to Iran or that Hamas would like to send many more.

In recent weeks, Israeli officials also have accused Iran of helping to funnel advanced weaponry through smuggler tunnels under the Gaza Strip's southern border with Egypt, though they've provided no evidence of such shipments.

"The battle in Gaza is not isolated from what is happening in the region," said Ayman Shaheen, a political science professor at Al Azar University in Gaza City. "The problem is that Hamas has put itself on the axis with Tehran. This is a new regional power that wants to dominate the region."

When Hamas took power last year in legislative elections, Israeli officials were skeptical that Iran would keep its pledge to provide the new Palestinian leaders with extensive financial support. But now Israeli leaders are voicing alarm about Iranian influence in the Gaza Strip.

"They are committed to waging a jihad against Israel and the United States and this is a place where it can be done at the lowest cost for Iran," said Shmuel Bar, an Iran specialist and the director of studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Israel.

How much support Iran has provided to Hamas is debated within the Israeli government.

"The arms come from Sinai, they come from Sudan, and who is the pusher?" Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy defense minister, said recently. "I don't think there is a question: money from Iran. The source of the weapons is mainly Iran."

Diskin downplayed the threat from smuggled weapons and said Israel faced a bigger danger from locally produced Palestinian rockets, which generally have small explosive power and can travel only a few miles.

Still, he warned that Israel will have to stage a large military operation in Gaza to combat Palestinian militants if Egypt doesn't crack down on arms smuggling,

"The Egyptians will play an important role in whether there will be an Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip," Diskin said.

Iranian support for Hamas also is fueling internal Palestinian divisions. Leaders from the rival Fatah faction have tried to eat away at Hamas' support by suggesting that the militant group is a tool for outside interests.

At a rally in January amid weeks of deadly factional Gaza Strip street battles, Fatah demonstrators in the predominately Sunni Muslim region mocked Hamas supporters by chanting "Shiite" because of their alliance with Shiite-dominated Iran.

Last month, Fatah leaders briefly claimed that they'd captured a handful of Iranian officers at the Hamas-dominated Islamic University in Gaza City. But they quickly backed off from the charge, and Diskin said there was no evidence to support it.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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