Israel prepares as war clouds gather: Russia's determination to supply S-300 missiles to Assad's Syrian regime raises fears of arming Hezbollah

Russia’s insistence that it will supply Syria with S300 missiles has heightened fears that they could fall into the hands of Hezbollah

From the window of Shrifa Schlomitz’s dental surgery at the top of a high rise in the Stella Maris area of Haifa, you can clearly see the three Patriot missile batteries pointing over the Mediterranean Sea towards the Lebanese border, just 30km away.

Dr Schlomitz has no interest in seeing them removed at the moment. Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group with which Israel fought a six-week long war in 2006 – a war that brought Haifa into the firing line of Hezbollah rockets – is too close for comfort again and the group’s deepening involvement in the Syrian civil war has increased the threat of new attacks, according to some.

“The rockets make us feel safer – it gives some kind of security. If they weren’t there people would be asking the government ‘what are you doing to defend us?’,” he says.

“I don’t think they will dare attack us. We would respond immediately and erase them from the map. But we’re in a standby situation; people know what can happen. People know there is potential danger, but also we have to live our normal lives at the same time. We know the situation can change very quickly.

In recent weeks, the drums of war have been beating louder. A week ago, there were reports in the Israeli media that a rocket was fired from Lebanon towards Israel. It didn’t land  – but the tension is being ratcheted up. 

In public, Israeli politicians are at pains to suggest that they will not take sides in the Syrian conflict even though Hezbollah has publicly thrown its weight behind Bashar al-Assad’s government. Recent reports that the Netanyahu government was also hoping that Assad stays in power and maintains the quiet on the shared border were angrily countered.

Despite its protestations, Israel has attacked targets inside Syria, both last month and in February. It will not admit to the action, but officials have lined up to argue that Israel has the right to prevent sophisticated weaponry reaching Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon.

It is a calculated risk. Hezbollah – whose leader Hasan Nasrallah warns of a “strategic response” to the Israeli attacks – is known to have many short- range rockets, but longer-range, more advanced, missiles would threaten Israel’s biggest city, Tel Aviv, further south and would bring the nearby Ben Gurion airport into play.

And it is for that reason that Israeli officials are so concerned about the Russian insistence that it will deliver a batch of its advanced S300 missiles to Damascus.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu said before cabinet [last week] that Israel will act to prevent the S300 missiles becoming operational, so if they arrive in Syria, Israel must act,” says Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzilya.

“Otherwise, it will find that the statement is hollow and devoid of content – that’s where logic takes us. At the same time, Assad cannot carry on not acting if Israel attacks again.”

Last week, the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, reported that the first consignment of the S300 missiles had arrived in Syria from Moscow – although privately Israeli officials have rubbished the suggestion.

The Russians insist that the weapons will help to restore balance in the region, but the Israelis – just a few weeks after Netanyahu went to  Russia to discuss the Syrian crisis with Vladimir Putin – have openly threatened to destroy them.

The Defence Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, said that Israel will “know what to do” if the S300s are delivered, adding that the deal is “clearly… a threat to us”.  Another minister, Yuval Steinitz, said that Israel would, “react to any threat. I hope Damascus understands that. We will react forcefully.”

He described the deal to supply the missiles to Syria as, “morally wrong”. Experts say that the S300s would enable Assad to shoot down manned aircraft and incoming missiles; the Israelis fear that in Hezbollah’s hands, they could become an even more lethal threat.

If the diplomatic arena is becoming ever more highly charged, on the ground there is not the same urgency. The Independent arrived in Nahariyya, just 5km from Lebanon, just before a scheduled nationwide air-raid drill. At precisely 12.30pm, the sirens started. Everyone ignored them.

That evening’s television news showed people in Tel Aviv rushing for the shelters. But not in Nahariyya. “People here are not getting too excited,” says Michael Younger, a middle-aged resident. “It was a test, everyone knew it was a test.”

Whether it’s stoicism, or just the bravado that is common in places such as Nahariyya, Younger says that people in the town are used to Hezbollah’s rockets. “What can we do? But everyone here is talking about it – we are waiting for it all to happen again.”

Spyer doubts that Hezbollah is the main threat. “I don’t think Hezbollah wants to open up another front, with Israel. It is acting on Iranian orders – it is part of a larger Iranian effort, to keep Assad in power. It is not a surprise that Nasrallah was in Tehran on 30 April, and now his fighters are engaged in the conflict.”

In Matula, Israel’s most northerly town, where Hezbollah flags can clearly be seen just a few hundred metres away, Spyer’s words may be of little comfort. The town, which saw heavy fighting in 2006, was reportedly the target of the rocket on Sunday. “I didn’t know there was a drill this morning and I got really scared when the siren went off, I thought that this was it,” says college student, Vered Idon. “I’m a bit worried. You can hear the explosions in Syria from here, and that’s scary, but it’s OK.”

In the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and, after occupying the area for 14 years, formally annexed in 1981, preparations are going ahead. The Independent passed numerous flatbed trucks which are used to transport armoured personnel carriers and tanks. At one point, we  saw at least 50 APCs lined up in a car park.

“I hope there’s a war,” says Ziv Peretz a father of two young children in the Golan town of Katzerin. “Then we can kill them all, finish them all off. I doubt anything will happen, because the Arabs know they will lose.”

Red Cross fears for injured in besieged town

The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is alarmed by reports of conditions in the besieged Syrian town of Qusayr and has called on all sides in the conflict to allow in aid for those injured in the fighting.

The rebel-held Qusayr has come under a bloody onslaught in recent weeks as government forces, supported by fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, have tried to reclaim the town. Qusayr is only a short distance from the Lebanese border and its capture would represent a significant gain for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Reports from the town suggest that there could be thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting. The Red Cross said water, food and medical supplies were becoming scarce, and many of the wounded desperately required medical attention.

“We have already requested access to Qusayr and we are prepared to enter the city immediately to deliver aid to the civilian population,” said Robert Mardini, the ICRC’s head of operations in the Middle East.

“Civilians and the wounded are at risk of paying an even heavier price as the fighting continues… Thousands of other civilians are reported to be in Qusayr still – hundreds of them severely wounded and without access to medical care.”

Despite the stark warning, on Saturday Russia rejected a draft UN Security Council declaration circulated by British diplomats, which raised “grave concern about the situation in Qusayr, and in particular the impact on civilians of the ongoing fighting”.

Russia, which like Britain has veto power over Security Council resolutions, said the UN had not condemned the original capture of Qusayr by rebel fighters, and so it would be inappropriate to endorse such a resolution now.

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