As tensions rise, Israel launches air raid drill


Israel launched its biggest ever air raid exercise yesterday to test its preparedness against possible missile strikes from Iranian-sponsored militant groups as international tensions rose over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Israel has called for strong economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear plans but, in a hint of possible military action, has said all options were on the table should diplomacy fail to resolve the dispute, Reuters reports.

Israeli officials said the exercise, which will include sounding air raid sirens on Wednesday, would focus on municipal authorities’
responses to a scenario in which missiles were launched from the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas Islamists, and by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Both are allies of Iran.

In public remarks at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Israel’s biggest civil defence exercise as a routine, protective move and said the government sought only “quiet, stability and peace”. The air raid sirens will sound on Wednesday nationwide in a signal to Israelis to take cover in shelters or designated secure areas for 10 minutes, and much of the public is expected to take part in this drill.

In a test of an emergency warning system, the military’s Home Front Command will also send text messages that read — “Have a nice day” — to cellphone owners in certain areas of the country, the army said in a statement to test communications. Rescue services will be put on a practice emergency footing, while a partial distribution of gas masks is also planned, in addition to air raid drills to be held at schools and hospitals.

The five-day drill dubbed “Turning Point 4″ has sparked nervousness in the region as diplomatic efforts intensify to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which the West and Israel believe are aimed at building atomic weapons. Iran denies its uranium enrichment programme is a quest for nuclear arms and says it is purely for power. Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal.

Itamar Rabinovitch, an expert on Middle East affairs and a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, said Israel must prepare for the possibility Iranian leaders would encourage Hamas and Hezbollah to fire on Israel in the event of stiffer UN sanctions against Iran.

We must show we don’t intend to be sitting ducks in the event of such an attack,” Rabinovitch said.

Hezbollah fired more than 4000 rockets into Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war. Hamas carried out numerous cross-border rocket attacks in the past, and Israel launched a war in the Gaza Strip in late 2008 with the aim of ending such strikes. Israel has held a country-wide civil defence exercise annually for the past three years and military officials said the current drill is the most extensive in its 62-year history.

Hezbollah rockets did cause significant casualties during the Lebanon war, and Israeli officials have said that since the conflict ended, the group has bolstered its arsenal with more powerful and longer-range weapons. Rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have rarely caused fatalities in Israel and carry a relatively small warhead. But Hamas has said it now has rockets that can reach deep into Israel.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is likely to raise US concerns about Syria arming Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon when he meets Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Monday, a US official said on Friday.

Hariri’s first official visit to the United States takes place against a backdrop of tensions in the Middle East, US efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and growing momentum toward new international sanctions on Iran.

Analysts expect Obama to be more encouraging in tone than demanding of results when he meets Hariri, who heads a national unity government that includes Hezbollah — a Shi’ite Islamist guerrilla group which is backed by Syria and Iran and is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Friday the two leaders would discuss a “broad range of mutual goals in support of Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence, regional peace and security.”

Lebanon and Syria have said they fear a possible attack by the Jewish state after its president, Shimon Peres, accused Syria in April of supplying Hezbollah with long-range Scud missiles capable of hitting Israel. Damascus has denied the charge and accused Israel of fomenting war. Some US officials have expressed doubt that any Scuds were actually handed over in full to Hezbollah, although they believe Syria might have transferred weapons parts. “We obviously have grave concerns about the transfer of any missile capability to Hezbollah through Lebanon from Syria,” a senior Obama administration official told Reuters, saying the issue would likely be raised in today’s talks.

Another official said Washington would ask Hariri to continue to support efforts “toward comprehensive regional peace.” Hariri has also denied Israel’s accusations, while his government has said it backs the right of the guerrilla group to keep its weapons to deter Israeli attacks.

Israel, which fought a 34-day war with Hezbollah in 2006, has not signalled any imminent plans to strike.

The war of words heightened tensions in the region, but the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Michael Williams, noted on Friday “that recent tension is now diminishing.”

Williams, who held talks with Hariri in Beirut, was quoted by the prime minister’s office as saying he was pleased “that all sides have scaled back the rhetoric.” Obama and Hariri are also expected to discuss US-led international efforts to isolate Iran over its disputed nuclear program, officials said. Lebanon holds the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council through May 31.

Diplomats said Beirut had quietly asked the permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States– not to push for a vote on a new Iran sanctions resolution while it held the presidency. Lebanon is expected to abstain in any vote because Iranian-backed Hezbollah is in its government, diplomats said.

Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Lebanon no longer enjoyed the status it had under the Bush administration, when it was the “fulcrum” of efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East. The Obama administration’s Middle East policy is more focused on the nuclear stand-off with Iran, war in Afghanistan, and reviving the Middle East peace process, he said. Nevertheless, the United States has expanded military assistance to Lebanon to strengthen its armed forces as a counterweight to Hezbollah, allocating $500 million to training and equipping Lebanese security forces since 2005