The top security official in Hamas-ruled Gaza said Tuesday he is considering setting up a bigger military force, first with volunteers and eventually with conscripts as well.
Such a step could further tighten Hamas' control of Gaza and deepen the rift with the group's Western-backed rivals in the West Bank. Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007, wresting control from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Currently, Hamas has a paid security force of about 18,000.
Interior Minister Fathi Hamad raised the idea of a broad-based force during the inauguration Tuesday of a new police building. He said his ministry is "open to the idea of voluntary recruitment and then going to conscription." He gave no details.
Hamad's spokesman, Ehab Ghussein, said the ministry is currently looking only at voluntary recruitment, not at a possible draft, and that the final decision would be up to the Hamas government. "We deny that the Interior Ministry will impose a draft" on the residents of Gaza, Ghussein said in a statement.
A security official in Gaza said conscription would be too expensive because of the large number of potential recruits. More than half of Gaza's 1.5 million residents are under age 18.
However, joining the security services for a limited period, with minimal pay and on a voluntary basis could benefit some of Gaza's young men, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters.
About one-third of the labor force is unemployed. Such a system would also give Hamas direct access to a wider segment of the population.