The Jordan Times
April 7, 2008 - 5:47pm

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.

"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.

A five-day nationwide exercise simulating air and missile attacks on cities, including by non-conventional weapons, began on Sunday, the army said, and is the biggest drill of its kind ever carried out in the Jewish state.

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 on Israel.

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 also convene the Security Cabinet to simulate the process of decision-making in war time, as part of the lessons drawn from the 2006 war against Hizbollah in Lebanon.

The prime minister and his staff will also train on working from an underground bomb shelter at the premier's Jerusalem office.

The planned exercise comes after local media last week reported heightened tensions along Israel's heavily guarded border with Syria and days after Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora put his armed forces on alert.

Siniora also asked UN peacekeepers tasked with monitoring the border, "to be careful" that Israel will not use the manoeuvres "to launch operations capable of increasing tension", a statement from his office said.

Israel has repeatedly said the drills are purely aimed at preparing 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," Olmert said.

The last round of negotiations between the two neighbours, technically at war since 1948, broke down in 2000 over disagreements over the strategic Golan Heights plateau, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed in 1981.

Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak earlier said 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". He added, however, that Israel was "ready to confront any development". Barak said the exercises were primarily aimed at "learning lessons" from the 2006 Lebanon war, during which more than 4,000 rockets fired by the Hizbollah militia slammed into northern Israel.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017