Friday, 15 March 2013

Israel gearing up for the next war with Hezbollah

ON a dusty field in Israel’s southern desert, the military is gearing up for the next battle against a familiar foe – Hezbollah in Lebanon.

As the Syrian civil war intensifies, military planners are growing increasingly jittery that the fighting could spill over into Israel.

This would potentially drag the Islamic terror group that is allied with President Bashar al-Assad into the fray.

So, in the last few days, a major military exercise was held near Revivim – a kibbutz in Israel’s Negev desert.

Scores of Israeli reservists in full battle gear participated in a drill meant to simulate Israel’s capture of a strategic hill overlooking a southern Lebanese village.

In the drill, three tanks kicked up dust as they charged forward and fired live rounds.

In front of them, groups of soldiers lay flat on the ground and opened fire with propped-up guns as other troops stormed up the hill.

Their targets were small cutout cartoon heads meant to represent Hezbollah fighters.

On a nearby Israeli army base, reservists have also been practising urban warfare on a set made to resemble an Arab village, complete with concrete homes, narrow alleyways and mosque minarets.

After battling Hezbollah to a stalemate in 2006, the Israeli military says it has learned key lessons and is prepared to inflict heavy damage on the group if fighting begins again.

The Israel-Lebanon border has remained largely quiet since that last war. But Hezbollah has since replenished its arsenal and has waged a shadow war with Israel around the world.

The fall of the Syrian leader or alternatively an Israel strike against Hezbollah’s other main patron, Iran, could spark another full-fledged war.

“There is an increase in tension because of Syria,” a senior commander in the military’s northern command said about a possible battle with Hezbollah.

In 2006, weeks of Israeli air raids killed more than 1,000 people, including hundreds of Hezbollah gunmen, and key infrastructure was destroyed.

But the heavy onslaught failed to prevent Hezbollah from firing 4,000 rockets into Israel and the fighting ended in a UN-brokered truce.

While the truce has largely held, Israel says Hezbollah has restocked its arsenal with tens of thousands of even more powerful rockets and missiles capable of striking virtually anywhere in the Jewish state.

Israeli military officials frequently say it is only a matter of time before the next war erupts.

In the meantime, Israel and Hezbollah have fought a covert war outside the borders of their countries.

In 2008, Hezbollah’s top military commander Imad Mughniyeh was killed in a car bombing in the Syrian capital of Damascus – an attack widely thought to be the work of Israeli agents.

Hezbollah, for its part, is thought to be responsible for a bus bombing in a Bulgarian resort town last July that killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver, as well as failed attempts to bomb Israeli diplomats in Thailand, India and Georgia. Israeli military officials believe that Hezbollah, which is preoccupied with its own domestic problems and the precarious position of its Syrian ally, has no desire to reignite hostilities.

But they say the Syrian civil war could easily upset the fragile balance.

As Assad’s grip on power weakens, Israeli military planners fear that Syria, backed by Hezbollah, might try to open a new front in order to deflect attention.

Israel also fears that sophisticated Syrian weapons, including a chemical arsenal, could be transferred to Hezbollah.

Israel has all but confirmed it carried out an airstrike in Syria in January that destroyed anti-aircraft missiles allegedly bound for Hezbollah.

Likewise, an Israeli attack on Iran would almost certainly draw a Hezbollah reprisal.

Israel has repeatedly hinted it is prepared to attack Iran’s nuclear installations if it determines that international sanctions and diplomacy have failed to curb the Iranian nuclear programme.

Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu has in the last few days warned again of the potential link between Iran and Hezbollah.

“A nuclear-armed Iran would dramatically increase terrorism by giving terrorists a nuclear umbrella,” he told the pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee – AIPAC.

“That means that Iran’s terror proxies like Hezbollah will be emboldened to attack America and Israel because they will be backed by a power with atomic weapons.”

Israel says it would act with far less restraint than it did in 2006, when it took out electric grids, roads and city blocks during the month-long war.

Next time, military officials, say entire villages that host Hezbollah’s arsenal would be considered fair targets.

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