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'Millions made human shields'

Weekend Australian, Australia  by  Jamie Walker, 11 July 2015

Israel has warned that up to three million civilians are "human shields" for Islamist extremists entrenched on its borders, raising the stakes as tension escalates over the fate of two Israeli nationals missing in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the militant group Hamas would be held responsible for the safety of Ethiopian-born Avraham Mengistu, 28, and an unnamed Arab-Israeli man after they separately crossed into Gaza and were evidently detained.

"I expect the international community, which expresses its concerns over the humanitarian situation in Gaza, to issue a clear call for these citizens to be released and to see to their return," Mr Netanyahu said.

The crisis erupted on the anniversary of the devastating war that killed up to 2300 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes which are yet to be rebuilt in Gaza, amid biting recriminations over whether the international community has honoured financial pledges to help or whether those funds have been embezzled or funnelled to Hamas's military wing.

Abduction touches a raw nerve with the Israeli government after it spent five years negotiating the release of a young soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas and freed in 2011. The bodies of two Israeli servicemen killed in last summer's 50-day war in Gaza have been retained by Hamas, to deep public anger in Israel.

At the same time, The Weekend Australian has obtained fresh details of Israeli military intelligence into the buildup of firepower by Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia on Israel's volatile northern border with Lebanon.

Aerial photography seen by and in part released to this newspaper purports to show that up to a third of the 1200 buildings in the town of Shaqra have been commandeered by the militants, putting its 4000 residents directly in the firing line of a war that is seen as virtually inevitable by the Israeli Defence Forces' leadership.

Amid the minarets of mosques, schools and clinics, the Continued on Page 12 INQUIRER P20 Hezbollah turns millions into human shields Continued from Page 11 Israelis claim that Hezbollah has positioned 20 arms cachets and 10 rocket launchers. There are seven infantry positions, five tunnels, five anti-tank positions and a command post to back the 400 fighters stationed there, the IDF alleges.

The information could not be independently checked, but conforms with other recent intelligence released by the IDF as its steps up a PR offensive against the tactics of militant groups in southern Lebanon and Gaza to dig weaponry and munition dumps into civilian areas.

The nearby village of Muhaybib, population 1100, is said by the IDF to bristle with five rocket positions, four fighting nests for infantry and three anti-tank emplacements.

Imagery released by the IDF to The Weekend Australian shows the entrances and traverse of fighting tunnels excavated by Hezbollah for its gunmen. Aerial photographs detail the integration of purported combat positions and arms depots with apartment buildings in the border village.

No information was provided on how the IDF acquired such specific on-the-ground material.

But a journalist who says she has visited both towns in southern Lebanon in the past two months, Belen Fernandez, posted that she found no sign of the entrenchments cited by the Israelis.

Hezbollah is invested in the Shia stream of Islam proselytised by Iran, and by the estimate of the Israeli military receives more than $1 billion a year in advanced weaponry and military aid from the ayatollahs in Tehran.

Hamas, which controls Gaza to Israel's south, is more secular, inviting criticism by Salafist Muslim extremists such as Islamic State that it is too pro-West and soft on Israel, despite last year's bloody war in the thickly-populated Palestinian strip.

However, a senior IDF intelligence commander who briefed The Weekend Australian on the problematic borders with Lebanon, Syria and the Egyptiancontrolled Sinai peninsula, taking in Gaza, warned that civilians were being used as human shields by Islamists to deter the Israeli military. This would not work, though the IDF realised it was inviting further international criticism after the invasion of Gaza a year ago.

"This is something which is very, very, very cynical . I am speaking about almost two million people inside the Gaza strip, and you can find a lot of military force along the strip from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions," the top army officer said. "I am speaking about a million Shi'ites inside Lebanon . now this is something that . we are getting into a situation where if we want to operate against Hezbollah, we have to operate somehow. Nothing is in."

The plight of the two young men missing in Gaza will heighten tensions for a variety of reasons.

Mr Mengistu, of the southern city of Ashkelon, was detained by Hamas 10 months ago after voluntarily crossing the frontier into Gaza, allegedly having ignored calls by Israeli soldiers to turn back on a beach leading on to the Palestinian territory.

He is of Ethiopian descent, a hot button issue in Israel amid complaints that the Jewish minority from that east African country faces racial discrimination.

His plight emerged after a gag order was lifted by an Israeli court on Thursday that he had walked into Gaza last September 7 and was arrested by security officers with Hamas, which calls the shots there.

What happened next to the young man is unclear. Gershon Baskin, a columnist with The Jerusalem Post, reported that Mr Mengistu was interrogated and told he should return to Israel. But he refused to do so. By Baskin's account, he was considered to be mentally unstable by the Hamas operatives who dealt with him. Mr Mengistu was released, and somehow ended up transiting through a Hamas tunnel in Gaza to the Sinai side controlled by Egypt. He had not been seen since, Baskin says. Hamas officials quoted by the Israeli media yesterday insisted they had no idea where he was, a proposition disputed by his family.

The second missing man, described as being an Israeli national of Bedouin descent from the southern region of Negev, was reported to be held by Hamas, though how he entered Gaza was not apparent.

Hamas denied he was in its custody. Ominously, the Israeli media speculated that identification tags belonging to the missing men had been paraded at a Hamas rally in Gaza on Wednesday marking the anniversary of last year's war.

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