Israel sees south Lebanon airport as Iran-backed springboard for attacks

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant accused Iran on Monday of setting up an airport in southern Lebanon to enable attacks against Israel.

Israel is troubled by arch-foe Iran's nuclear programme, missile build-up and support for militants in the region. The most powerful group, the Lebanese Hezbollah, fought a war with Israel in 2006 but this year several incidents have taken place along the border and angry words have been exchanged.

In televised remarks to an international security conference hosted by Reichman University, Gallant showed aerial images of what he described as an airport built by Iran with a view to pursuing what he called "terrorist objectives" against Israel.

He did not elaborate on these, but said the site could accommodate mid-sized aircraft. The location he gave was near the Lebanese village of Birket Jabbour and city of Jezzin, some 20 km (12 miles) north of the Israeli border town of Metulla.

Neither Hezbollah nor Iranian officials had an immediate response to Gallant's remarks.

A non-Israeli source with knowledge of the site said it could accommodate large drones - some of them weaponised - built off of Iranian blueprints. The source said drones launched from the site could be used for both internal and external operational activities - but added that the nature and direction of the runway suggested the former were more likely.

Hezbollah has been investing heavily in drone technology, the source said.

Gallant said there was an Iranian effort to create another dangerous front on Israel's border with Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, "through Shiite militias that operate and are based in Iraq".

He did not elaborate on the scale or provide further details on how this was being accomplished.

Israel is widely believed to have its own nuclear arsenal, although it neither confirms nor denies this.

Gallant also mentioned divisions in Israeli society over planned judicial overhaul legislation which has led to mass demonstrations and some reservists saying they would refuse call-ups if the legislation passes.

"The continuation of the internal struggle is jeopardizing national resilience, The Israel Defense Forces and our ability to provide security to the State of Israel," Gallant said.

(Writing by Dan Williams and Maya Gebeily,; Editing by Peter Graff and Angus MacSwan)