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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Israel to hold drill simulating war with Hizbollah

The drill will last 10 days and will involve thousands of land, sea and air forces

Israel's army will begin on Tuesday a massive exercise simulating conflict with Hizbollah. In this photo, taken on September 22, 2014, Israeli soldiers walk at an Israeli deployment area near the border with the Gaza Strip. Jack Guez / AFP
Israel's army will begin on Tuesday a massive exercise simulating conflict with Hizbollah. In this photo, taken on September 22, 2014, Israeli soldiers walk at an Israeli deployment area near the border with the Gaza Strip. Jack Guez / AFP

The Israeli military began what it called its largest drills in 20 years on Tuesday, simulating an attack by Hizbollah.

The drill is taking place in northern Israel along the Lebanese border and is expected to run until September 14. It will involve thousands of land, sea and air forces and will include tests of Israel’s missile defence system.

While both Israel and Hizbollah remained focused militarily on Syria, bellicose rhetoric has been plentiful in recent months. Israel has claimed Iran is building missile factories inside Lebanon in support of Hizbollah and has criticised the United Nations for not doing enough to stop the group from amassing weapons in southern Lebanon near the Israeli border.

In May, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened that a conflict between the two sides could see the Shiite fighters conducting a ground invasion of Israel and said the militant group possessed missiles that could strike anywhere in Israel - including a nuclear reactor located in the southern city of Dimona.

The last conflict between Israel and Hizbollah, in the summer of 2006, killed nearly 1,200 Lebanese civilians and crippled Lebanon's infrastructure.

More than 100 Israeli soldiers died in a ground invasion that was repelled by Hizbollah, which lost hundreds of fighters. Forty-four Israeli civilians were killed, largely by rockets fired by Hizbollah.

In the years since, the most significant engagements between the two sides have taken place in Syria. Since 2012, Israel has carried out several air strikes against what it has said were weapons being transferred from Syria to Lebanon, and also struck Iranian and Hizbollah personnel in the Golan Heights.

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Last week, Israeli officials also claimed Iran is building missile bases in Syria in order to support the group.

Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri refuted Israeli assertions about the factories last week during an interview with the French daily Le Monde.

“The Israelis know well that there are no missile factories in Lebanon,” Mr Hariri said. “They are accustomed to such disinformation campaigns. They say that Hizbollah controls Lebanon, it is not true. Hezbollah exists, it is in government, it enjoys support in the country, but that does not mean that all Lebanon is controlled by Hizbollah.”

While claims about the missile factories in Lebanon may not be true, no one disputes that Hizbollah is a different organisation than it was in 2006.

It has openly supported the Assad government in Syria’s civil war since 2013, gaining experience in conventional military tactics that it once lacked, and its numbers have grown. It has also trained proxy forces on behalf of the Syrian government, potentially further increasing its available fighting force.

Timur Goksel, former senior adviser of United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and currently Turkish editor of Al Monitor website, said that despite the rhetoric, neither side was likely to strike.

“An invasion? Are you joking?” Mr Goksel said. “I don’t believe there is likelihood of hostilities breaking out anytime soon. Of course there has been lots of bombast, but both sides are heavily armed, and there is mutual deterrence. It’s just too expensive for both sides.”

“Both sides are engaged in a propaganda war,” Mr Goksel said.

As a result of the Syrian war, Hizbollah’s “military skills have improved no doubt, but Hizbollah has also paid a price. It has lost fighters and senior leaders".

"These are people that are hard to train and hard to find,” he said.

Mr Goksel also said he doubted the Iranians were constructing missile factories.

“Hizbollah does not like to leave targets."

Media affiliated with the Shiite militant group made note of the drills being held by the “Zionist entity” on Tuesday, but were more heavily focused on a different theatre of battle: gains being made by the Syrian army and Hizbollah near Deir Ezzor, one of ISIL’s last strongholds in eastern Syria.

A spokesman for UNIFIL confirmed the Israeli exercises were under way on Tuesday, but said that there were no reports of anything out of the ordinary in the area.

* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse