Tension mounts as Israel tests its defences

Israel yesterday kicked off a massive five-day civil defence exercise aimed at testing the Jewish state's preparedness for rocket and chemical attacks. Israeli officials sought to reassure Syria and Lebanon that it has no plans to launch an attack.

The nationwide operation is likely to raise tensions between Israel and its neighbours at a time when tempers are already frayed over Iranian-backed Hizbollah's efforts to rearm along Israel's northern border.

The exercise, code-named "Turning Point Four", is Israel's largest civil defence operation since it first launched the annual drill four years ago in the wake of the Lebanon war, during which Hizbollah fired thousands of rockets into northern Israel. "This is an exercise which has been scheduled for a long time and is not the result of any unusual security development," the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said yesterday. "Israel seeks calm, stability and peace, but it is no secret that we live in a region where there is a threat from missiles and rockets."

The exercise will test responses of the municipal authorities to simulated rocket and missile attacks from the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian group Hamas, and Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, Israeli officials said. The drill will also test the reactions of the civilian population with a 90-second air raid siren scheduled for Wednesday morning – a signal for Israelis to head for the nearest secure shelter.

In December 2008, Israel launched a crushing 22-day military offensive on Gaza to curb rocket attacks. 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the incursion, and 13 Israelis. A UN agency reported on Saturday that three-quarters of the damage inflicted on Gaza by Israel's war against Hamas more than a year ago has not been repaired or rebuilt.

Arab leaders are angry about the drill. The Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, warned that the exercise runs counter to newly-launched Middle East peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians, while the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, urged the West to "contain Israel and put an end to its extremist policies," according to Syria's Sana news agency.

Hizbollah reportedly said that it had mobilised thousands of additional fighters and raised its alert level ahead of the exercise.

Israel has relayed messages to Arab states that it has no plans to launch an attack on its neighbours. "We have no intention of starting a war in the north," Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, said at yesterday's cabinet meeting.

The French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said yesterday that he was "reassured" that tensions had eased in recent days between Israel and its Arab neighbours. He was visiting Damascus and Beirut to ensure all sides hold to a UN resolution that bans the supply of arms to Hizbollah. President Assad told Mr Kouchner that it was not in the interests of Syria, Hizbollah or Iran to start a new conflict, AFP quoted a French diplomat as saying.

Israeli officials have publicly expressed concerns over Hizbollah's efforts to rearm, and claim that it has built up an arsenal of over 40,000 rockets, some of them long-range.

The Israeli President, Shimon Peres, last month accused Syria of providing Hizbollah with a shipment of Scud missiles, a powerful weapon capable of reaching Israeli cities and inflicting mass casualties. Syria has vehemently rejected the claims, alleging that Israel is seeking a pretext for war.

Analysts say that Hizbollah is unlikely to launch an attack on Israel in the near future, but warn that rising tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions could precipitate a more serious stand-off with Hizbollah, Iran's proxy in the region.

Israel has pressured the international community to impose crippling sanctions on Iran, which is widely suspected of trying to develop a nuclear weapon, and has hinted that it could launch a unilateral strike if patience runs thin.

"The prospect should remain on the table," said Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's former chief negotiator with Syria. "Without a credible threat, diplomacy will have no edge."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high