'You can see the Iranian flag flying over the runways'

Iran building airport in southern Lebanon to attack Israelis, Gallant says

DM claims facility, 20 km from Israel, to be used by Iran ‘for terror purposes’ against Israel; IDF chief: We must be ‘more prepared than ever’ for ‘extensive military conflict’

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks at a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, September 11, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks at a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, September 11, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday accused Iran of setting up an airport in southern Lebanon, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Israeli border, which he said was being used “for terror purposes” against Israelis.

Speaking at an annual conference of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism Policy (ICT) at Reichman University in Herzliya, Gallant presented pictures of the airport, being built in the Qalaat Jabbour mountain region, which he said bore the fingerprints of Iran and its proxy terror group Hezbollah.

“In the pictures, you can see the Iranian flag flying over the runways, from which the ayatollah regime plans to operate against the citizens of Israel,” Gallant said.

“In other words: the land is Lebanese, the control is Iranian, and the target is Israel,” he added.

The claim could potentially re-inflame tensions heightened following provocations by the Iran-backed Hezbollah in recent months that include the terror group’s establishment of two tents in territory claimed by Israel — one of which was later removed — and camouflaged operatives patrolling the border in violation of a UN resolution, among other acts.

“If it comes to a conflict, we will not hesitate to activate the lethal force of the IDF. Hezbollah and Lebanon will pay heavy and painful prices,” Gallant warned.

This image presented by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant during a speech at a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, September 11, 2023, shows a runway allegedly built by Iran in southern Lebanon. (Defense Ministry)

He also accused Iran of being behind terror operations in the West Bank and  increasingly controlling Gazan terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“Iran is the provider of money, knowledge, and guidance to Gazan terrorism,” he said.

Speaking at a 50-year commemoration of the Yom Kippur War, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi echoed Gallant’s warning.

“Our enemies may be tempted to see an advantage in the multi-front threat to us. It is better for them to know that when Israel is threatened, it knows how to mobilize all its resources, put the differences aside — and attack,” he said, referring to recent societal strife over proposed changes to the judiciary.

According to Reuters, citing a non-Israeli source, the airfield exposed by Gallant can be used by large drones, including armed unnamed aerial vehicles that were developed from Iranian plans. The source said drones that take off from the airstrip could carry out operations both domestically and beyond Lebanon’s border, though the former was more likely.

The source also said Hezbollah has devoted considerable resources to drone technology.

This image presented by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant during a speech at a conference at Reichman University in Herzliya, September 11, 2023, shows an airport allegedly built by Iran in southern Lebanon. (Defense Ministry)

Gallant said Iran was continuing efforts to establish militia groups on Israel’s northern border, in addition to its arming of the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.

“The State of Israel, through the defense establishment, will not allow the establishment of a second Hezbollah in the Syrian Golan Heights, and the use of Syrian soil as a springboard for the transfer of [advanced] weapons to Hezbollah,” Gallant said.

Israel has admitted to conducting hundreds of sorties against Iran-backed groups attempting to gain a foothold in Syria, over the last decade, as well as attacking arms shipments believed to be bound for those groups, chief among them Hezbollah.

Gallant also said Iran was working to destabilize the Iraq-Jordan border with militia groups, to potentially open up another front against Israel on its eastern border with Jordan.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, on September 11, 2023 at the Glilot military base. (Israel Defense Forces)

Speaking at the Glilot military base near Herzliya, Halevi cautioned against Israel underestimating its enemies, as it is thought to have done five decades ago.

“We must be more prepared than ever for a multi-front and extensive military conflict, which will include maneuvering in close contact and with high friction with the enemy, will involve losses and casualties, and where the home front is also a front,” Halevi said.

Gallant urges ‘broad agreement’ for judicial changes

In his remarks, Gallant also addressed the government’s controversial plans to overhaul the judicial system, saying “major changes must made by broad agreement” a day before the High Court of Justice hears petitions against the first and so far only piece of legislation approved as part of the judicial shakeup.

“The continuation of the internal struggle between hawkish currents in the State of Israel seeps into the IDF and into the other security organizations and exacts a price that the IDF and the defense establishment cannot bear,” Gallant said.

“I am not concerned with the question of who started it or who is right. I repeat, the continuation of the internal struggle endangers national resilience, the IDF, and our ability to provide security for the State of Israel and protection for its citizens,” he added.

Halevi also appeared to refer to national tensions over the judicial overhaul, which top IDF officials have warned is harming military readiness amid protests against the proposed changes by reserve soldiers who have stopped showing up for volunteer duty or threatened to do so.

“One cannot but wonder, can such cohesion only exist under a great threat?” Halevi asked.

“The State of Israel has one IDF that protects it from many enemies. It is the responsibility of all of us to protect [the IDF], because it is the basis of our safe existence here, and because our security is above all else,” he added.

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