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(photo credit: IDF Photo)
The Israeli and Greek navies began three days of joint maneuvers near Crete Monday in a sign of warming defense ties.
The exercise simulates rescue operations following an island earthquake in the Mediterranean. Israel dispatched to the drill its largest vessel, the INS Lahav of the Sa'ar 5 class. On board is also a delegation from the Home Front Command that will exercise rescuing civilians trapped under rubble.
"The exercise is aimed at strengthening the cooperation between the two countries and practicing the immediate dispatch of forces in any case of crisis, disaster or need," said a senior naval officer.
While the current naval maneuvers are humanitarian in nature, they come just two weeks before Greece and Israel are expected to renew a strategic agreement between themselves. Greek Defense Minister Spilios Spiliotopoulos is expected to visit Israel shortly, where he will sign the agreement with Israeli counterpart Shaul Mofaz.
"The big benefit for our Navy is that we are being used as a diplomatic tool, and that is very important," said a senior naval officer. "The fact that an Israeli navy ship is even here is important."
"What it shows is that you can transport a little bit of Israeli sovereignty anywhere and it is acceptable around the world," he told The Jerusalem Post.
The official said that the Navy has a rich experience of defense cooperation with the Turkish forces and that the maneuvers with Greece were not intended to harm those links in any way. But, he said, they were intended to balance them out somewhat.
Greece invited all seven of NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue partners, Israel, Algeria, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia to send delegations to the exercise. "We were the only ones who accepted the offer," said a senior naval official.
All seven states have yet to participate in joint military maneuvers in the NATO framework, but Jordan and Algeria did dispatch naval officer to Crete to observe the current drill. The Mediterranean Dialogue is designed to bolster regional security through cooperation.
While the Navy has held some exercises with the Greeks in the past, this is the first time that Home Front forces are involved. The Home Front unit will help rescue survivors of a simulated earthquake from a simulated destroyed town set up on a military base on Crete.
The Navy is to then race to the island of Gavdo, where its helicopters and commando rafts will work together with the Greek forces to ferry "injured" from its sole village to the ship for medical treatment in its emergency clinic.
The Navy's INS Lahav is expected to head home on Thursday.