by Gur Salomon
JERUSALEM, Oct. 21 (Xinhua) -- Amid mounting concerns of a regional war and projections of an earthquake in the not-too- distant future, Israeli military and rescue forces on Sunday launched intensive drills aimed at putting their skills to the test in coping with both.
The country's first-responders, including police, firefighters and emergency medical services, held their first earthquake preparedness drill, as a part of the sixth annual Turning Point national exercise, which is also meant to test the civilian population's response to a natural disaster.
As part of the simulation, radio and television on Sunday morning abruptly interrupted scheduled programming with breaking news of a moderate temblor measuring 5.6 degrees on the Richter scale felt near the Red Sea port of Eilat, instructing civilians to seek refuge in open and protected areas wherever possible.
At noon, media issued a mock alert of an approaching tsunami rolling in from the Mediterranean and wreaking havoc in Tel Aviv.
The drill comes following Israel's Civil Defense Ministry and the army's Home Front Command damage estimates. The figures project 7,000 fatalities, tens of thousands of wounded, some 170, 000 displaced and homeless, and devastating damage to infrastructures in the event that a real earthquake, or other disaster, were to strike, The Times of Israel reported Sunday.
Israeli seismologists and geologists have warned for years that a major earthquake is only a matter of time and that the country is ill-prepared to cope with its aftermath.
Some 70 percent of structures in central Israel, which house some 42 percent of the country's population, still lack proper reinforcement to withstand a temblor, in accordance with required resistance standards set by the government in 1980, according to local media.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in order to serve as a personal example, cut short his cabinet's weekly session on Sunday and exited from his office together with the ministers, just as the media instructed the public.
"The ministers are first and foremost citizens of Israel and, like everyone else, we are taking part in the drill. No government has investment so much in protecting the home front and we still have many plans to do more," Netanyahu said in a statement sent to Xinhua.
"The main message we seek to convey to the citizens is that via this drill, and other measures, we want to run into homes during a missile attack and to run outside during an earthquake," said Netanyahu, who later in the day is scheduled to visit a drill being held in the coastal city of Holon near Tel Aviv, along with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the army's top brass.
In parallel, the Israeli and U.S. militaries commenced a long- awaited air defense exercise billed as the largest of its kind in the allies' history.
A little more than 1,000 American troops and a similar number of their Israeli counterparts deployed Sunday at radar and air defense sites scattered throughout Israel and offshore for the month-long drill, code-named Austere Challenge 12 (AC12).
The complex simulation is designed to test the two nations' combined air defense abilities to protect the Jewish state against repeated salvos of hundreds of missiles and rockets fired from neighboring foes, presumably including Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah, Hamas in Gaza and possibly Syria.
The two countries have reportedly invested 30 million U.S. dollars each in the drill, which will range from the European theater to U.S. naval craft along Israel's shores, and on land, where the Israel Air Force is testing out its gamut of air defense systems, including the upgraded Patriot 3, the Arrow II ballistic missile shield, Iron Dome, a system for intercepting short-range missiles, and David's Sling missile interceptors arrayed in batteries across Israel.
A U.S. Navy cruiser packing an Aegis ballistic missile defense system will serve as command and control for the event. The system is also networked via a series of radar sites, stretching from Israel's upper Galilee near Lebanon down to Negev desert.
With mounting concerns in the West that Israel is poised to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, top officers from both militaries were careful to emphasize that the combined drill is not related to heightened tensions in the region, or to deter Iran from considering a pre-emptive strike on Israel.
"This exercise is purely about improving combined U.S.-Israeli military capability," Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, a regional defense commander for the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), told reporters in a conference call from an air base in Germany last week.
"It is neither related to any national elections nor to any perceived tensions in the region or a specific event," he added.
His Israeli counterpart, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel, said the drill will simulate a multi-front assault on Israel and would culminate with a live fire drill.
Referring to the Hezbollah drone that penetrated Israeli airspace two weeks ago and reportedly beamed back images of secret military installations before it was shot down, Nuriel said the drill had also planned to test responses to such flights.
Originally scheduled for April, AC12 was postponed at the behest of Israeli Defense Minister Barak, who cited budget constraints at the time.
"This was not a last-minute announcement. I consulted with my U. S. counterpart on the matter," Barak told Army radio.
As well, original estimates of some 5,000 participants were cut back, "mainly in logistics and in support teams," according to Nuriel, who said that "on the ground, there's no change and we are going to practice as planned."
This is the sixth such exercise Israel and the United States have held every two to three years.
In 2010, Israel and EUCOM held a similar, albeit smaller, air defense drill, code-named Juniper Cobra 10, which involved a combined 2,800 troops and was hailed as a success by both sides.