AARAMTA, Lebanon (AP) — The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah put on a show of force Sunday, extending a rare media invitation to one of its training sites in southern Lebanon, where its forces staged a simulated military exercise.
Masked fighters jumped through flaming hoops, fired from the backs of motorcycles, and blew up Israeli flags posted in the hills above and a wall simulating the one at the border between Lebanon and Israel.
The exercise came ahead of “Liberation Day,” the annual celebration of the withdrawal of Israeli forces from south Lebanon on May 25, 2000, and in the wake of a recent escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. Militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, has long had ties with Hezbollah.
The recent heightened tensions also come months after Lebanon and Israel signed a landmark U.S.-brokered maritime border agreement, which many analysts predicted would lower the risk of a future military confrontation between the two countries.
The Israeli military declined to comment on the Hezbollah exercise.
Senior Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine said in a speech Sunday that the exercise was meant to “confirm our complete readiness to confront any aggression” by Israel.
On the other side of the border, Israeli forces have also occasionally invited journalists to watch exercises simulating a war with Hezbollah. Officials from both sides frequently allude to their readiness for conflict in public statements.
On the ground, however, the conflict has been largely frozen since the two sides fought a brutal and inconclusive one-month war in 2006.
Israel regularly strikes targets related to Hezbollah and its backer, Iran, in neighboring Syria.
In Lebanon, while Israel and Hezbollah, as well as armed Palestinian groups, have exchanged periodic strikes in the years since 2006, they have largely avoided casualties on either side.
Most recently, Israel launched rare strikes on southern Lebanon last month after militants fired nearly three dozen rockets from there, wounding two people in Israel and causing some property damage. The Israeli military said it targeted installations of Hamas, which it blamed for the rocket fire, in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah derided the claim, saying the Israeli strikes had only hit “banana groves” and a water irrigation channel.
Safieddine in his speech Sunday alluded to the group’s possession of precision-guided missiles, which were not on display but which he said Israel would see “later.”
Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese army general who is currently a researcher in military affairs, said Hezbollah’s “symbolic show of strength” on Sunday appeared to be in response to the recent escalation in Gaza. He said it could also be a response to a demonstration Thursday in Jerusalem by thousands of Jewish nationalists, some of whom chanted “Death to Arabs” and other racist slogans, in celebration of “Jerusalem Day.” The day marks Israel’s capture of the Old City 56 years ago.
Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center who researches Hezbollah, said that in the past when there was an escalation in the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Lebanese armed group would sometimes fire off rockets or allow a Palestinian faction in Lebanon to do so. But he said Sunday’s military exercise was a lower-risk way to show force.
Given that Friday marked the return of Syria — an ally of Hezbollah and Iran — to the Arab League, Hage Ali said, Hezbollah may not have wanted a clash on the border with Israel to distract from the Arab reconciliation.
While the military exercise “is showing how strong they are and sending a message to the Israelis, it also demonstrates that this time around, they don’t want to escalate,” he said.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed.