Monday, April 07, 2008

Israel insists nationwide exercise poses no threat to Lebanon, Syria

Israel insists nationwide exercise poses no threat to Lebanon, Syria
Hizbullah number two warns resistance is ready to defend against attack
Compiled by Daily Star staff

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought to reassure Syria and Lebanon on Sunday that Israel did not want a major missile attack drill to worsen tensions along its northern border. "The goal of the exercise is to check the authorities' ability to carry out their duties in times of emergency and for preparing the home front for different scenarios," Olmert told a weekly Cabinet meeting.m "There is nothing else hidden behind it. All the reports on tension in the north can be moderated and cooled down. We have no secret plans," he added in reference to the "Turning Point" drills. In Beirut, various Hizbullah officials warned that the party was prepared for any eventuality. "We know that we have the forces ... the enemy should reconsider before committing any stupid act," said MP Hussein Hajj Hassan. Senior Hizbollah official Mohammad Yazbek said that "a plan against Lebanon, Syria, Iran and the resistance is behind these maneuvers," according to NNA. Hizbullah's second-in-command, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said the Israeli exercises are intended to prepare for a new war on Lebanon, also warning that the party was fully prepared to defend Lebanon in the event of another Israeli attack.

A five-day nationwide exercise simulating air and missile attacks on cities, including by nonconventional weapons, began on Sunday, the army said, and is the biggest drill of its kind ever carried out in Israel. Over the next few days emergency sirens will be sounded across the country and schoolchildren will practice entering shelters and protected spaces in the event of chemical and biological weapons attacks. The emergency services will also, for the first time, broadcast on television tutorial videos explaining how to act during an attack. Olmert said he will convene the security cabinet to simulate the process of decision-making in war time, as part of the lessons drawn from Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon. The prime minister and his staff will also train on working from an underground bomb shelter at the premier's Occupied Jerusalem office. The exercise comes after Israeli media last week reported heightened tensions along the state's border with Syria and days after Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora increased military readiness.

As the Israeli military exercises and civilian drills commenced Sunday, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) went on "high alert." According to the National News Agency (NNA), LAF chief General Michel Suleiman ordered the move to a heightened state of alertness in response to drills being held near the Lebanese border. Siniora also asked UN peacekeepers tasked with monitoring the border "to be careful" that Israel not use the maneuvers "to launch operations capable of increasing tension," a statement from his office said. Israel has repeatedly said the drills are purely aimed at preparing the country's emergency services and civilians to respond to an attack. "As far as I know the Syrians know this and there is no need to give the exercise a different interpretation," Olmert said. "We are interested in negotiations for peace with the Syrians. They know exactly what our expectations are, we know their expectations, and if the circumstances allow this, that is where we would like to head," added the Israeli premier. The last round of negotiations between Syria and Israel, legally and technically in a state of war since 1948, broke down in 2000 ovewr Israel's refusal to reurn all of the Golan Heights occupied during the 1967 Middle East war. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said earlier that "the northern front is particularly volatile, but we don't want any degradation and the other side knows it, and we also think that the other side doesn't want a degradation [of the situation]," adding that the Jewish state was "ready to confront any development." Barak said the exercises were primarily aimed at "learning lessons" from the 2006 summer war, which saw Hizbullah launch around 4,000 rockets at northern Israel. The month-long conflict ended under a UN-brokered cesation of hsotitlities after more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed. An official investigation of the war harshly criticized Israel's military and political leadership for failing to protect civilians during the conflict. - AFP with additional reporting by Anthony Elghossain

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