Defence drill raises fears Israel plans strike

Operation 'Turning Point 3' comes after recent testing of a new Iranian rocket and envisages attacks with chemical and biological weapons.

Israeli soldiers wear gas masks during a drill earlier this year simulating a chemical missile attack.
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TEL AVIV // Amid escalating Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear facilities and long-range missiles, Israel will today begin the largest national defence drill in its 61-year history. The exercise is expected to include simulated enemy rocket attacks aimed at civilians. The five-day drill will test Israel's security and emergency responses to a regional war on multiple fronts with such countries as Iran and Syria and the militant groups they both back, Hamas and Hizbollah.

The training is stirring speculation that Israel may be preparing for military action against Iran's nuclear programme, a possibility some analysts say would spur regional hostilities. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, has said the main threat facing Israel, widely viewed as the sole nuclear-armed power in the Middle East, comes from what he alleges is Iran's development of nuclear weapons. Tehran has long denied the charge and insists its nuclear programme is peaceful.

The planned drill is also increasing worries among Israel's Arab neighbours that the country is preparing for a conflict. Lebanon has placed its military on high alert along its southern border with Israel. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Lebanon's Hizbollah group, has warned that the exercise indicates an Israeli preparation to wage a "new and unexpected war". Mr Netanyahu last week stressed that the practice was not aimed at threatening the country's neighbours, and was "a routine drill planned several months ago ? to co-ordinate among the various civilian and military bodies".

However, other Israeli officials have warned that this week's activities imitate what they view as a credible scenario against the state. Matan Vilnai, the deputy defence minister, told the parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee last week: "This is not an imaginary situation. This is not detached from reality, and if there is a war it is very likely that this is what will happen." He added that the defence ministry plans to distribute gas masks to all of Israel's 7.2 million citizens starting in November.

The drill follows an exercise conducted by Israel's air force earlier this month, which simulated missile attacks on Israeli cities from countries including Iran and Syria. It was the first time Israel had simulated strikes from Iran, which is more than 1,000km away. The exercise was conducted in the same week that Iran announced the successful test launch of an advanced surface-to-surface solid-fuel rocket, the Sajjil-2, which is capable of reaching Israel and US bases in the Middle East.

While Iran has long had missiles that could hit Israel and Gulf states, where the United States keeps a few army bases, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has boasted that the Sajjil-2 includes "advanced technology" that boosted its accuracy and speed in comparison with the missiles already in the country's arsenal. Israeli officials fear that such a missile could one day carry nuclear warheads.

This week's exercise, code-named "Turning Point 3", will include simulations of conventional, chemical and biological strikes against big population centres in Israel, as well as a wave of Palestinian suicide attacks and rioting by members of Israel's Arab minority. Israeli media has reported that the drill will begin with a simulated escalation of violence along Israel's southern border with the Gaza Strip that would prompt an Israeli ground invasion into the tiny seaside territory. Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group against which Israel launched a 22-day onslaught in December and January.

The scenario assumes that after 60 days of fighting in Gaza, tensions also flare with Hizbollah along Israel's border with Lebanon, prompting Israel to call up army reserve forces as millions of its civilians come under massive rocket barrages on several fronts. A key part will take place on Tuesday, when, for the first time in such trainings, a minute-long air-raid siren will sound across the country and civilians will have to rush to shelters or bomb-proof rooms in their homes, schools or places of work, some within seconds and others within several minutes.

As part of the drill, Mr Netanyahu will hold cabinet meetings in which government ministers will discuss ways of responding to the developing hostilities. Israel said the activities this week would implement lessons it had learnt from the war it conducted against Hizbollah in mid-2006 and from its recent assault on Gaza. The previous government had been widely criticised domestically for mishandling the conflict against Hizbollah, when nearly one million Israelis in the country's north came under the bombardment of more than 4,000 cross-border rockets.

Israel has held similar drills in the past two years, but has said the current training was its largest and most comprehensive yet. Israeli media have reported that governments and military officials from foreign countries including the United States, France, Germany and Japan will visit Israel this week to observe the exercise.