Thousands of paramilitary forces from Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards on Friday held war games simulating the capture of the Al-Aqsa Mosque from Israeli control, the Iranian media reported.
The reports said the forces stormed and liberated a replica of the mosque. They said that 120 brigades of Basij, the paramilitary unit of the Guards, occupied hypothetical enemy positions during Friday’s exercise in the holy city of Qom in central Iran.
The mosque is situated on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the most holy place to Jews as the site of the Biblical temples, and the third-holiest to Muslims. The Palestinians claim that Israel intends to change the decades-long status quo at the site, where non-Muslims can visit but not pray. Israel has repeatedly and vehemently denied the accusation, and accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of incitement for making such comments.
The symbolic operations were backed up by Guards helicopters, drones and Tucano planes that bombed hypothetical enemy positions before ground troops captured the replica of the mosque set up at the top of a mountain.
In a common mistake, the Guards set up a replica of the gold-topped Dome of the Rock instead of the nearby mosque. Official photos showed one of the troops going to the top of the dome and waving an Iranian flag and a red-colored flag, a symbol of martyrdom.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who heads the Guards’ aerospace division, said his force deployed Shahed-129, or Witness-129, drones during the war games. The drone, unveiled in 2013, has a range of 1,700 kilometers (1,050 miles), a 24-hour nonstop flight capability and can carry eight bombs or missiles.
Even so, the exercise appeared to be largely for show. Iranian commanders have not said how they would be able to deploy large numbers of forces against Israel, located 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) away, or overcome the powerful and technologically advanced Israel Defense Forces.
Israel and Jordan agreed last month to install cameras on the Mount to monitor activities by Jewish and Muslim visitors to the holy site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, in a bid to calm tensions that have helped drive the recent escalation in Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers.
The 37-acre (15-hectare) compound in Jerusalem’s Old City is a frequent flash point and its fate is a core issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is the holiest site in Judaism, and was the home to the two biblical Jewish Temples. Muslims believe the site — the third holiest in Islam — is where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
Iran, Israel’s archenemy, frequently expresses solidarity with the Palestinians and holds an annual “al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day” each year on the last Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan.