Drill has Israelis fearing war anew


JERUSALEM (JTA) – A nationwide emergency drill of unprecedented scale again has Israelis worried about war.

As official rhetoric and media speculation regarding a possible new confrontation with Lebanese Hezbollah, Syria or even Iran continue to simmer, Israel’s armed forces and public services this week are going through a five-day drill intended to test the homefront’s readiness for enemy missile salvoes and other worst-case events.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched the exercise, dubbed “Turning Point 2,” at Sunday’s Cabinet session by issuing a dummy declaration that the Jewish state was “at war.”

But though the drill is being implemented as part of the hard lessons of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when thousands of Hezbollah rockets rained down on northern Israel, Olmert also tried to calm regional concern.

“I would like to make clear that this is an exercise and nothing but an exercise,” Olmert said in broadcast remarks. “The State of Israel seeks no confrontation or violence in the North.”

Lebanon and Syria seemed unconvinced.

In Beirut, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s office said he had instructed the army “to be extremely vigilant and take all necessary measures to protect Lebanese civilians” should the Israeli maneuvers prove to be a ruse.

Hezbollah official Nabil Kuak added, “We monitor all of the Israeli exercises and we aren’t afraid of them.”

The London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that Syria put its forces on high alert.

“Syria is ready to defend itself against any aggression” by Israel, the country’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, was quoted as saying.

Israelis are deeply skeptical, too. Many believe the failures of the Second Lebanon War served to embolden Iran and its allies, and brought closer the prospect of an even more catastrophic conflict.

“The possibility of war with Syria or its proxies is back in a big way,” wrote Yediot Achronot’s Nahum Barnea, a leading Israeli pundit. “Something is happening.”

Turning Point 2 will feature everything from chemical weapons drills at schools to a simulated influx of fleeing civilians at Ben Gurion Airport to the sounding of air raid sirens Tuesday. The sirens will not be sounded in Sderot and other southern Israeli towns that must deal with the real threat of Palestinian rocket attacks from the nearby Gaza Strip.

The conjunctions of theory and reality in Sderot point to the precarious security situation in Israel, which faces various regional threats but sees Iran as pulling the strings.

Palestinian Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon enjoy open Iranian patronage. Syrian President Bashar Assad, fearing for his regime, is aligned with the Islamic Republic – a pact that troubles many fellow Arab rulers, as the thin turnout at last week’s Arab League summit in Damascus showed.

As for Tehran’s motivations – apart from the precept of waging ultimate jihad against the Jewish state, fomenting regional instability has the added benefit of distracting from international efforts to curb the Iranian nuclear program.

Faced with this axis of foes, Israel has been trying to address them individually.

Reuters revealed last month that ahead of its bloody five-day offensive against Hamas rocket crews in northern Gaza, Israel passed Damascus a secret warning: Should Hezbollah fire across the Lebanese border, Israel would see Syria as responsible and could launch a war.

As it happened, northern Israel remained quiet even as the armed forces killed scores of Palestinian terrorists and civilians in Gaza.

In parallel to its threats, Israel has been trying to talk to Assad.

“We have said more than once that we have an interest in holding peace negotiations with Syria,” Olmert told his Cabinet. “They know exactly what our expectations are. I can also say that we know what they their expectations are. If these expectations are borne out, then this is what we are intent on and nothing else.”

The Israeli prime minister was referring to Damascus’ demand for a return of the Golan Heights and to Jerusalem’s demand that Syria first disengage from Iran.

Despite Israel’s apparently successful standoff so far with Lebanon and Syria, Jerusalem is aware that it could change overnight.

An overarching fear is that Iran, faced with intensifying foreign scrutiny on its nuclear project, could try to precipitate a ruinous war that would shift focus to Israel’s tactics.

Iran also may want to pre-empt what it sees as an inevitable Israeli or U.S. strike on its nuclear facilities – a specter that recent visits to Israel by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and a host of senior American military brass have done little to allay.

“What if Iran was to give Hezbollah an order to launch its Katyushas at us again, and damn the consequences to Lebanon and Syria?” a senior Israeli defense official said on condition of anonymity. “The stakes just keep getting higher.”

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