In first, IDF sends troops to participate in major US-led drill in Morocco

12 Golani soldiers join ‘African Lion’ exercise, held in north African nation and nearby countries, including Tunisia, with which Israel has no formal ties

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

An IDF contingent of soldiers from the  Golani Reconnaissance Battalion in Morocco to take part in the US-led African Lion military exercises on June 5, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
An IDF contingent of soldiers from the Golani Reconnaissance Battalion in Morocco to take part in the US-led African Lion military exercises on June 5, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Monday said it had sent a delegation of troops to participate in a major American-led military drill held in Morocco and nearby African nations, a first for the Israeli army.

The US Africa Command said its joint annual drill with Morocco — dubbed “African Lion” — involves some 8,000 servicemembers, and would run between May 13 through June 18.

Israeli troops are only participating in the drill in Morocco, though parts of the exercise are also held in Ghana, Senegal, and Tunisia, which does not have any diplomatic ties with Israel.

In all, troops from 18 countries, including the host nations, are to participate in the African Lion 2023 drill, AFRICOM said.

Twelve soldiers of the Golani Brigade’s reconnaissance unit left Israel on Sunday to join in the final two weeks of the international drill in Morocco, marking the first time the IDF takes an active part in the African Lion exercise.

Last year, the IDF and Israel’s Defense Ministry sent observers to the drill, also for the first time.

“During the next two weeks, the soldiers will focus on training in various combat challenges that combine urban warfare and underground warfare, in which they will conclude in a common exercise for all participating armies,” the IDF said in a statement.

“The purpose of the exercise is to strengthen the relationship between the countries. Additionally, to create a mutual learning opportunity allowing the foreign armies to share knowledge,” it added.

A US HIMARS system drives past Tunisian M189 Howitzers during the African Lion drill at the Ben Ghilouf Training Area, Tunisia, May 27, 2023. (US Army photo/Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Nelson)

Israel and Morocco established low-level diplomatic relations during the 1990s, following Israel’s interim peace accords with the Palestinians, but those ties were suspended after the outbreak in 2000 of the Second Intifada.

A breakthrough took place 20 years later when the Trump administration agreed to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region in exchange for Rabat agreeing to normalize relations with Israel. Morocco was the third country to join what was dubbed as the Abraham Accords, following the leads of the UAE and Bahrain.

Despite opposition from some sectors of the Moroccan public, ties have since continued to develop.

In November 2021, then-defense minister Benny Gantz signed a memorandum of understanding with his Moroccan counterpart, the first such agreement between Israel and an Arab state.

The agreement formalized the defense ties between the two countries, allowing for smoother cooperation between their defense establishments and making it easier for Israel to sell arms to the North African kingdom.

With the signing of the MOU, the two countries’ defense ministries and militaries could more easily speak with one another and share intelligence, whereas before, such communication was only possible through their respective intelligence services.

Last July, then-IDF chief Aviv Kohavi held a first official visit to Morocco. In February, the chief of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, also visited the African nation.

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