Text size

The Israel Defense Forces this week carried out one of the largest infantry exercises of recent years in the Golan Heights region, training for conflict with Syria and Hezbollah.

Supplies were air-dropped, tanks provided covering fire and infantry forces trained in nonconventional warfare and countering anti-tank missile attacks.

"We are training for every possible scenario. Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and terror organizations in the West Bank," an officer says.

The IDF said the exercise was not intended to signal any attack on Syria, a statement Damascus did not accept.

"Olmert says explicitly that he is not prepared to talk to Syria, and senior American officials repeat this statement. That's why we cannot believe his lies," a commentator on Syrian radio said yesterday.

The IDF is trying to correct shortcomings discovered during the Second Lebanon War, a battalion commander said. The Golani brigade lost 20 fighters in the last war.

The exercise's goal is to prepare both mentally and actively for any future challenge. "Last year we were less trained, we lacked resoluteness and decisiveness. With regard to mental preparation the problem lay in the sharp transition from routine to warfare," he said.

A senior officer says that over the past year the exercises for reserve troops have increased dramatically. "The exercises are more structured. Each unit carries out specific exercises according to its goals and aims. Our emergency supplies have been renewed, there is a multi-year plan for weapons and personal equipment. Everything is based on the assumption that a reserve soldier's preparation should be similar to that of a regular soldier," he says.

IDF officers are convinced that the army has learned many lessons from the last war and that the threats to which the forces had been exposed have been dealt with, especially the threat of Hezbollah's advanced anti-tank missiles. They believe Syria's army has limited capabilities and its air force is far inferior to Israel's. Therefore, a new war would resemble last year's fighting in Lebanon - commando combat in difficult terrain with large areas controlled by anti-tank units.

In recent months the Golan Heights has become one of the IDF's main exercise areas. At times this requires closing off roads. Infantry troops and rows of tanks, armored personnel carriers and jeeps raise clouds of dust in grazing fields and the air is filled with low-flying helicopters and echoes of explosions.

"This is the first time they let us practice with live fire," says a reserve soldier from the central region, after completing a two-week exercise in the Golan last month. It's like a medicine student who practiced only on a plastic doll and needs to feel the real thing. We've exercised attacks, fired from rocket launchers. But as for the Syrian threat, I did not feel like the commanders knew something that hasn't been written about in the newspapers," he said.

Another reserve soldier, who completed an exercise at the Ze'elim base, reported a significant improvement in the quality of weapons and equipment. He said this was the first serious exercise he had taken part in since 2001. "This time we felt we were really training," he said.