In this Friday, Nov. 20, 2015 photo released by the Tasnim News Agency, members of the Basij, the paramilitary unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, gather around a replica of Jerusalem's gold-topped Dome of the Rock mosque as one of them waves an Iranian flag from on top of the dome during a military exercise. (AP Photo)
Paramilitary forces from Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard have held a war game simulating the capture of Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque from Israeli control, state media reported Saturday.
It said forces stormed and "liberated" a replica of the mosque in the exercise. They say thousands of members of the Basij, the paramilitary unit of the Guard, participated in Friday's exercise outside the holy city of Qom in central Iran.
The symbolic operations were backed up by Guard helicopters, drones and Tucano planes that bombed hypothetical enemy positions before ground troops captured the replica of the mosque set up at the top of a mountain.
Official photos showed one of the troops going to the top of the dome and waving an Iranian flag and a red flag, a symbol of martyrdom.
The hilltop compound, which is holy to Jews and Muslims, has been at the heart of weeks of unrest between Israeli occupation forces and the Palestinians. Muslims call the site the Noble Sanctuary, and the mosque is Islam's third holiest site after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Jews revere the spot as the Temple Mount — home to the biblical Temples and the holiest site in Judaism.
The current round of fighting was sparked in part by rumors that Israel was plotting to take over the site — a charge that Israel denies. Clashes outside the mosque erupted in September and quickly spread across Israel and into the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The current wave of protests and repression started in late July when toddler Ali Dawabsha was burned to death and three other Palestinians were severely injured after their house in the occupied West Bank was set on fire by Israeli settlers.
Palestinian protests were also triggered by an increase in Jewish visitors to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is considered the third holiest site in Islam. Palestinians fear that Israel is preparing to allow Jewish prayers in the mosque, which are not currently allowed.
Settlement-building, racial discrimination, confiscation of identity cards, long queues at checkpoints, as well as daily clashes and the desecration of Al-Aqsa mosque, have been Palestinians' daily routine.
The anger of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem has increased in the last three years after the Israeli authorities allowed increasing numbers of Jewish settlers to storm the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who heads the Guard's aerospace division, said his force deployed Shahed-129, or Witness-129, drones during the war games. The drone, unveiled in 2013, has a range of 1,700 kilometers (1,050 miles), a 24-hour nonstop flight capability and can carry eight bombs or missiles.
Even so, the exercise appeared to be largely for show. Iranian commanders have not said how they would be able to deploy large numbers of forces against Israel, located 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) away, or overcome Israel's powerful and technologically advanced military.
Iran, Israel's arch-enemy, frequently expresses solidarity with the Palestinians and holds an annual "Jerusalem Day" each year on the last Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan. Iran does not recognize Israel, has called for its destruction. Israeli officials declined to comment on the war games.
The story was edited by Ahram Online.