By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA, Sept 28 Fifty thousand Palestinian gunmen and hundreds of suicide bombers are ready to repel or at least impede any large-scale Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip, an official from the ruling Hamas said on Friday.
Israel has threatened to mount a massive ground sweep of Gaza as a last resort against cross-border rocket fire by Palestinian militants, which has not been significantly reduced by more limited air strikes and commando incursions.
But Israeli officials say such a mission in the congested territory would mean major casualties on both sides, a price the Jewish state may not be willing to pay given the relatively low death toll exacted by the crude short-range Palestinian rockets.
Nizar Rayyan, a senior Hamas leader, promised Israel "a painful response" should it send in troops and tanks en masse.
A Hamas-affiliated Web site quoted Rayyan as saying that "50,000 fighters, armed and brave in the battlefield" await an invasion and that 400 would-be suicide bombers wear their explosives belts around the clock, ready to attack tank columns.
"Hamas leaders were surprised when 200 women volunteered to carry explosives to confront Israeli tanks too," Rayyan said.
Israeli intelligence assessments are that Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in a brief civil war with secular Fatah rivals in June, has marshalled at least 20,000 fighters proficient with a variety of small arms.
Partly funded by Iran, Hamas has modelled itself on Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, which fought Israel last year. Israel suffered surprise setbacks in that war, prompting the top brass to order an overhaul of their forces ahead of any new conflict.
Hamas has offered Israel a long-term truce, though its charter urges the Jewish state's destruction. Some Israeli officials have called for Hamas, which now vies with Fatah for primacy in the West Bank, to be crushed before it gains power.
A big Israeli push into Gaza in the coming weeks could complicate plans for a U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference due to take place in November.
"There are many things that have to be taken into account when going out on such an operation, and the summit is without a doubt one of the things that cannot be ignored," Deputy Israeli Defence Minister Matan Vilna'i told Army Radio.
Last week, Israel declared Gaza an "enemy entity" in response to the frequent rocket fire and said it would reduce fuel and power supplies. It has yet to take such action.
Karen Koning AbuZayd, commissioner-general of the U.N. agency responsible for aiding Palestinian refugees, said: "To take any of the steps, like cutting off water or electricity, would be illegal."
Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem before a visit to Japan, she said Israel's decision, if implemented, would place an "intolerable strain" on Gaza's population.
Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 after 38 years of occupation. Palestinians say the territory is still effectively under occupation because Israel controls its borders, waters and airspace.