Israel’s army has launched a surprise military exercise in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the Syrian borders amid rising tensions in the region following several Israeli airstrikes on Syria.
The Israeli military said it kicked off the military drill in the occupied territories on Sunday with the aim of maintaining combat readiness.
According to the statement, the exercise is part of the 2018 training program, and will span several days.
The army noted that there would be increased vehicular activity and explosions would be heard, adding reserve forces were also called up.
Israel seized the Golan Heights after the 1967 Six-Day War and later occupied it in a move not recognized by the international community. The regime has built dozens of illegal settlements in the area ever since and has used the region to carry out a number of military operations against the Syrian government.
Tensions have heightened in the Golan Heights in the wake of several Israeli air raids on Syria. Damascus says the strikes are meant to provide support to Takfiri militants fighting against government forces.
The Syrian army has on several occasions seized huge quantities of Israeli-made arms and military equipment from terrorists fighting against government forces. There are also reports that Tel Aviv has been treating extremists wounded in Syria at its medical centers and hospitals.
The drill began as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told European leaders that Tel Aviv would “take strong action against attempts to establish a presence against us, and also against attacks on us.”
Speaking at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said he focused on Iran’s alleged “efforts to establish a military presence in Syria” during his four-day European tour where he met German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Iran offers Syria advisory military support in its fight against terrorism and denies having any combat role in the conflict.
Israeli-Arab ties improving ‘beyond imagination’
Netanyahu also said Tel Aviv’s relations with Arab states were “improving beyond imagination,” claiming that “this will ultimately help achieve peace without Palestinians neighbors.”
Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem al-Quds on Sunday, Netanyahu once again addressed the alleged dangers of a nuclear Iran, saying, “Iran has produced one good thing – it’s brought Israel and our neighbors closer together as never before.”
Israel is widely believed to be the sole possessor of a nuclear arsenal in the Middle East with up to 400 undeclared nuclear warheads. Tel Aviv has rejected global calls to join the NPT, refusing to allow international inspectors to observe its controversial nuclear program.
Arab states have been traditionally depicting themselves as Israel’s enemies and supporters of the Palestinian cause against Tel Aviv’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Israel’s warming ties with some Persian Gulf Arab states come while the occupied territories have witnessed new tensions ever since US President Donald Trump on December 6, 2017 announced Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem al-Quds as Israel’s “capital” and subsequently moved the American embassy to the holy city.
Trump is also set to reveal a “peace” plan after the end of the holy month of Ramadan in mid-June. The text is reportedly intended to serve as a springboard for more negotiations between Israel and Arab governments, DEBKAfile, an Israeli intelligence website, reported last month.
US, Palestinian officials trade barbs
With the plan looming, Trump’s special Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt traded barbs with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on Sunday.
In an article in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper on Sunday, Erekat said the US envoy has refused to put anything of substance on the negotiating table, slamming him for parroting the right-wing Israeli views.
“It is not the rhetoric of a US official tasked with supporting the interests of peace in the region,” he wrote.
“In dozens of meetings we had with Mr Greenblatt he refused to discuss substance: no borders, no settlements, and no two-state solution,” Erekat said.
“Today, his role is nothing less than peddling Israeli policies to a skeptical international community, and then becomes upset when he’s reminded of this,” he added.
Greenblatt responded to the top Palestinian negotiator in an op-ed, in which he said American officials were acting as “spokespeople” for Israel. Trump’s special envoy also said Erekat’s “false claims” and rhetoric have not brought peace closer.
The last round of talks between Israelis and Palestinians collapsed in 2014. Trump’s declaration of al-Quds as Israel’s “capital” prompted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to formally declare that Palestinians would no longer accept the US as a mediator to resolve the decades-long conflict as Washington is “completely biased” towards Tel Aviv.
“The notion that Israel is going away – or that Jerusalem is not its capital – is a mirage. The notion that the United States is not the critical interlocutor for the peace process is a mirage,” Greenblatt wrote.
The US on May 14 moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem al-Quds after months of global outcry. In the hours leading up to the inauguration, Israeli troops killed 59 Palestinians and wounded over 2,700 others.
Erekat wrote that the contrast between the two events that day “aptly demonstrates the complete US and Israeli denial of the Palestinian history of dispossession.”