Amy Teibel
The Statesman
June 15, 2010 - 12:00am

A top security official warned Tuesday that Israel would open itself to grave danger by lifting its three-year naval blockade of Gaza but did not oppose easing the embargo to allow more goods in through Israeli-controlled land crossings.

Yuval Diskin, head of Israel's Shin Bet internal security agency, also told parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee that Gaza militants possess 5,000 rockets, Israel's most specific estimate yet. Diskin's testimony was reported by a meeting participant who spoke on condition of anonymity because the session was closed.

Israel is facing mounting international pressure to end the blockade of the Palestinian territory. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was scheduled to meet with his Security Cabinet — a gathering of top political and security officials — on Wednesday to discuss ways to further ease the embargo, said senior officials.

With Egypt's cooperation, Israel has blockaded Gaza by land and sea since Hamas militants overran Gaza three years ago. The embargo has allowed in little more than food, medicine and basic humanitarian goods, causing Gaza's already impoverished economy to grind to a standstill.

The embargo — meant to keep weapons from reaching militants and to turn ordinary Gazans against their Hamas rulers — has come under heavy international scrutiny since Israeli commandos killed nine Turks two weeks ago during a raid on a blockade-busting flotilla.

Israel has been easing its land blockade of Gaza since the May 31 raid, and Diskin told the parliamentary committee that Israel's security wouldn't be compromised if it were to let more goods into the territory through Israeli-controlled land crossings.

But Diskin warned that ending the naval closure would be dangerous, even if international monitors were to inspect Gaza-bound ships, the meeting participant said.Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that Gaza would be turned into an "Iranian port" if the sea blockade stopped.

Israel is under intense diplomatic pressure to find another way to protect itself against Gaza militants, who for years terrorized Israel's southern flank with rocket and mortar attacks. It is most sensitive to pressure from top ally Washington, which has called the blockade "unsustainable."

The International Red Cross added to the pressure on Israel, saying Monday that the blockade constitutes "collective punishment" in violation of international law.

"The closure is having a devastating impact on the 1.5 million people living in Gaza," said Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, the group's head of operations for the Middle East.

The blockade has failed to achieve its objectives. Weapons have poured into Gaza through a network of tunnels dug under the border with Egypt. On Tuesday, Diskin said militants have an arsenal of 5,000 rockets, including several hundred imported from abroad.

Most can fly no further than 25 miles (40 kilometers), though some are able to strike Israel's Tel Aviv-area heartland, he said, repeating previous assessments.

Abu Ahmad, spokesman for the military wing of the Islamic Jihad militant group, would not confirm or deny Diskin's estimate, but added, "The attempt to link this information to lifting the siege on Gaza reflects the enemy's bad intentions. Israel is cooking up excuses and pretexts to maintain the unjust siege."


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