Gaza's Hamas rulers have obtained anti-aircraft missiles, Israel's prime minister said Monday, in a potentially game-changing development that could threaten the Israeli air force's ability to strike at the Islamic militant group.
Israeli aircraft have long dominated the skies over Gaza, striking suspected Hamas military installations and assassinating dozens of wanted militants. The Israeli air force played a key role in a fierce three-week offensive in Gaza early last year, which began with airstrikes that killed hundreds of Hamas fighters.
Speaking to his Likud Party, Netanyahu disclosed that Israel's aerial freedom has been compromised by the new weaponry in Gaza, presumably smuggled into the area through tunnels connected to neighboring Egypt. He said any future peace agreement would have to include security arrangements to deal with the threat.
Israel believes that despite its military offensive and Egypt's stated goal of halting arms smuggling, Hamas has managed to restock its arsenal with longer-range missiles that can strike the heart of Israel.
Netanyahu's assessment was the first time an Israeli official has openly said Hamas also possesses anti-aircraft weaponry as well, though intelligence officials have privately suspected that was the case.
"The security problem is not just the new rockets that will enter the area and will threaten city centers. I don't know if you know this, but today we are struggling to fly near Gaza because they have anti-aircraft missiles there," Netanyahu said.
He warned that the missiles could also threaten air traffic at Israel's international airport. "Israel's security needs are real, the solutions have to be real, not on paper. We need to find long-term solutions that give Israel security," he said.
Netanyahu gave no evidence to support his claim, and Hamas accused the Israeli leader of spreading propaganda to justify future attacks in Gaza.
"These remarks reflect the intention of the Zionist enemy to commit more crimes and more future aggression against our people, taking advantage of the American support and the Arab silence," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.
"We emphasize that the Palestinian people have the right to defend themselves against any future aggression and this is a national and holy duty," he added.
Hamas has fired thousands of rockets and missiles into Israel in recent years, though it has largely refrained from attacks since Israel's offensive. Barhoum refused to say whether Hamas has anti-aircraft weapons.