Israel holds defense drill amid regional tension

Israel held a dress rehearsal for disaster Sunday, beginning a defense drill to test the response of soldiers, emergency crews and civilians to simulated missile barrages, terrorist attacks and chemical strikes.

Israel embarked on its fourth annual home front drill at a time when Iranian-backed militants are rearming to Israel’s north and south, and Iran itself is suspected of developing nuclear arms, despite its denials.

The five-day exercise, the biggest in Israel’s history, has raised allegations by the country’s enemies that it is preparing for war — a concern Israel has sought to allay.

“We’re talking about a national defensive operation — defensive, not offensive,” Col. Hilik Sofer, a senior official with the military’s home front command, told Army Radio. “I wouldn’t want our home front to be caught like it was on the eve of the Lebanon war, unprepared, undrilled and untrained. I very much hope this drill won’t lead to anything.”

Israel began carrying out the annual exercise, code-named Turning Point, after its 2006 war with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon showed the country’s bomb shelters, air raid sirens and civil defense authorities were unprepared. The exercise also incorporates experience from Israel’s 2009 war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli media reported that Hezbollah heightened its alert status ahead of what it branded Israel’s “war game.” And they quoted Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri as saying the Israeli exercise defies peacemaking efforts.

Israel has tried to allay regional concerns with assurances through diplomatic channels that the drill is not a cover for a military strike, defense officials said.