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As tensions rise, Israel begins big defense drill

UN summer camp is vandalized by assailants in Gaza

By Amy Teibel
Associated Press / May 24, 2010

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JERUSALEM — Israel held a dress rehearsal for disaster yesterday, beginning a defense drill to test the response of soldiers, emergency crews, and civilians to simulated missile barrages, terrorist attacks, and chemical strikes.

Israel embarked on its fourth annual home-front drill at a time when Iranian-backed militants are rearming to Israel’s north and south, and Iran is suspected of developing nuclear arms, despite its denials.

The five-day exercise, the biggest in Israel’s history, has raised allegations by the country’s enemies that it is preparing for war, a concern Israel has sought to allay. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the drill is a “routine exercise that was scheduled long ago.’’

“I want to emphasize that this is not a result of any abnormal security development,’’ he told his Cabinet yesterday. “On the contrary, Israel wants quiet, stability, and peace, but it is no secret that we live in a region that is under threat of missiles and rockets.’’

Israel began carrying out the annual exercise, code-named Turning Point, after its 2006 war with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon showed the country’s bomb shelters, air raid sirens, and civil defense authorities were unprepared. The exercise also incorporates lessons from Israel’s 2009 war against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Tensions have risen in recent weeks after Israel accused Syria of smuggling Scuds and other missiles to Hezbollah. Syria denied the charge.

In the Gaza Strip yesterday, armed assailants in black masks burned and vandalized a UN summer camp site and left behind three bullets next to written death threats against UN officials. It was the latest escalation of tensions between Islamic extremists and UN representatives in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Also yesterday, a UN agency reported that three-quarters of the damage inflicted on Gaza by Israel’s war against Hamas more than a year ago has not been repaired or rebuilt. The report warned that the international community is being increasingly sidelined in Gaza because of Israel’s blockade of the territory.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack on the UN camp site on the Gaza shore, near Gaza City.

However, Islamic extremists, including Hamas hard-liners, have repeatedly railed against the United Nations as being a bridgehead for the West and for corrupting Gaza’s youth by teaching “un-Islamic’’ subjects in schools and summer camps.

The UN summer program offers sports, crafts, and other activities to some 250,000 Gaza children and teenagers. Hamas, which seized Gaza by force three years ago, has set up rival camps with a heavy emphasis on Islamic teachings.

“Vandalism linked to extremism, that encapsulates what we are dealing with here,’’ said John Ging, who heads Gaza’s largest UN aid agency and who was among three UN officials the assailants threatened to kill unless the summer camps are canceled.

About 30 assailants in black uniforms and masks arrived at the camp site in jeeps about 2:30 a.m., said the night watchman, Ibrahim Alawi. The guard said the vandals then tied his hands, slashed or burned eight tents, and set fire to 30 large plastic water tanks and other facilities. Ging said the damage would be repaired and that all 143 camps would open June 12, as scheduled. The Hamas government denounced the attack.

In the past, shadowy extremist groups, some with ties to Hamas, have attacked Internet cafes, music stores and other sites they felt had a corrupting influence on Gazans.

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