US troops arrive for drill simulating massive missile attack on Israel

Biennial Juniper Cobra exercise, involving thousands of soldiers, to take place amid escalating Israel-Hezbollah tensions

Lt.-Gen. Timothy Ray addresses reporters during a press conference as part of the Juniper Cobra exercise at the Hatzor Air Base in central Israel on February 25, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Lt.-Gen. Timothy Ray addresses reporters during a press conference as part of the Juniper Cobra exercise at the Hatzor Air Base in central Israel on February 25, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

US forces are deploying in Israel ahead of a large-scale joint Israel-US military exercise, due to start next week, which will simulate a major conflict in which Israel is attacked with thousands of missiles.

The biennial Juniper Cobra military exercise, which is being held for the ninth time, will take place amid an escalation of rhetoric between Israel and the Hezbollah terrorist group in southern Lebanon, which is believed to have an arsenal of between 100,000 and 150,000 short-, medium- and long-range missiles and a fighting force of some 50,000 soldiers, including reservists.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which seeks Israel’s destruction, has reportedly been threatening to open fire at IDF soldiers if Israel does not halt the construction of a barrier it is building along the Israel-Lebanon border.

Israeli soldiers (top L) and UN peacekeepers (top R) look at Lebanese supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah movement attending a rally against the US president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, on January 28, 2018, in the southern Lebanese village of Alma al-Shaab, on the border with Israel.(AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Wednesday that should war erupt again with Lebanon, Beirut would “pay the full price” for Iran’s entrenchment in the country, and that if the citizens of Tel Aviv are forced into bomb shelters “all of Beirut will be in bomb shelters.”

The drill set to start next week will simulate thousands of missiles, launched from several fronts, being fired into the Israeli homefront, a Channel 10 news report said Wednesday.

Some 3,200 soldiers from the IDF and United State’s European Command (EUCOM) took part in the February 2016 drill. It was America’s “premier exercise in this region and EUCOM’s highest priority exercise in 2016,” Lt. Gen. Timothy Ray, head of the US Third Air Force, said at the time. “This exercise increases our military readiness, but just as importantly it also signals our resolve to support Israel.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman during a ceremony for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, in southern Israel, January 31, 2018. (Flash90)

Speaking at an annual conference held by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, Liberman said that Lebanon will be held to account in a future war because, led by the terrorist Hezbollah group, it has “sacrificed its national interests by subjugating fully to Iran.”

“Lebanon’s army and Hezbollah are the same — they will all pay the full price in the event of an escalation,” Liberman said. “If a conflict does break out in the north, ‘boots on the ground’ remains an option. We won’t allow scenes like in 2006, where we saw citizens of Beirut on the beach while Israelis in Tel Aviv sat in shelters… If people in Tel Aviv will be in bomb shelters, all of Beirut will be in bomb shelters.”

Liberman was referring to the Second Lebanon War, during which dozens of Israelis were killed in the north in rocket attacks — though Tel Aviv did not come under attack.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, left, and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot visit an IDF drill in the Golan Heights on February 21, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)

Over the past year, Israel has often warned of a growing Iranian influence in Lebanon, with Liberman telling United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in August that Iran is “working to set up factories to manufacture accurate weapons within Lebanon itself.”

In a rare Arabic op-ed published Sunday in Lebanese news outlets, the IDF spokesman accused Iran of turning Lebanon into “one big missile factory.” In the piece, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said Iran’s extensive support for Hezbollah had turned the country into a “branch” of the Islamic Republic.

“It is no longer just the transfer of weapons, money and advice. Iran has de facto opened a new branch — ‘the Lebanon Branch.’ Iran is here,” Manelis wrote.

IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis. (Israel Defense Forces)

In his Wednesday speech, the defense minister said that this time, as opposed to 2006, a war with Lebanon would also likely involve Syria.

“Israel’s northern front extends to Syria; it is not just Lebanon. I am not sure that the Syrian government can resist Hezbollah’s attempts to drag them into a war with Israel,” he said.

Hezbollah has committed much of its fighting force in support of the Syrian government in its ongoing war with rebel groups.

On Monday, Israel’s Hadashot TV news reported that Hezbollah has threatened to open fire at IDF soldiers if Israel does not halt the construction of its barrier along the Israel-Lebanon border.

Israel has been building the obstacle — made up of a collection of berms, cliffs and concrete barriers — for a long time, but it has only now reportedly angered the Lebanese terror group, which last fought Israel in the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

The message was delivered to Jerusalem via the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the report said. The UN force, fearing a possible escalation, passed the message on to the US and French ambassadors, who updated the Prime Minister’s Office on the matter.

A picture taken from the Israeli town of Yiftah on January 30, 2018 shows the border fence between Israel and Lebanon with the southern Lebanese village of Blida on the background. (AFP/Jalaa Marey)

However, the Israeli government was unimpressed, and responded with a threatening message of its own, the report said. Israel said it was acting in its own sovereign territory in accordance with a Security Council resolution adopted after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.

Israel does not intend to halt the construction, Jerusalem said, and Hezbollah will “pay dearly” if it tries to inflame tensions. “Israel’s reaction will be strong and painful,” sources in Israel’s security establishment were quoted as saying.

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