JERUSALEM: Israel launched air raids against Syrian army positions early Wednesday and issued a stark warning to Damascus just hours after a bomb on the occupied Golan Heights wounded four of its soldiers.
The air strikes marked the most serious escalation along the ceasefire line with Syria since the 1973 Middle East War, with Israel’s defence minister warning that Damascus would pay a “high price” for helping militants bent on harming the Jewish state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had on Tuesday warned that Israel would act “forcefully” to defend itself following the Golan attack.
“The IDF targeted several Syrian army positions which aided and abetted the attack against IDF personnel yesterday,” a military statement said, with a spokeswoman confirming the air force had staged bombing raids on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights plateau.
The air raids targeted a Syrian army training facility, a military headquarters and artillery batteries, the statement said. Military sources confirmed that the air force had carried out four strikes at around 3:00am (0100 GMT).
There was no immediate response from the Syrian military, the spokeswoman said.
The air raids took place 12 hours after four soldiers who were patrolling the Israeli side of the ceasefire line were wounded by a roadside bomb, one of them severely.
It was the third such incident in two weeks along Israel’s northern frontier, with Israeli military officials blaming the Syrian army for complicity in the attack.
Two previous attempts to strike soldiers along Israel’s northern borders on March 5 and March 14 were blamed on Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shiite movement which fought a bloody war with Israel in 2006.
In a statement issued at dawn, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel held the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable for the attack. “We see the Assad regime as responsible for what is happening under its authority, and if it continues to cooperate with terror elements who seek to harm Israel, we will make it pay a high price,” Yaalon said.
Militants from Hezbollah are fighting alongside Syrian troops in their three-year battle against rebels bent on overthrowing Assad.
Israel would not tolerate any “breach” of its sovereignty and would continue to strike anyone seeking to harm its forces or civilians, Yaalon said.
“We will react with determination and force against anyone operating against us, at any time and any place, as we have done tonight,” he said.
“Whoever tries to harm us takes his fate in his hands.”
Israeli officials have been careful not to directly blame Hezbollah at this stage, but Netanyahu on Tuesday said there was a growing number of “jihadists and Hezbollah elements” on the Syrian Golan, saying it “represents a new threat” for Israel.
Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday’s bomb, analysts pointed to similarities with an explosion last week targeting troops along the Lebanese border, which was blamed on Hezbollah, and a similar attempt in the Golan on March 5.
In Friday’s incident, an explosion targeted Israeli troops on the Lebanese border, very close to Syria, prompting the military to shell Hezbollah positions over the border.
And on March 5, the Israeli army said troops on the Golan had opened fire on Hezbollah members as they tried to plant a bomb near the ceasefire line.
It claimed to have struck the two fighters but did not say what weapon it used or whether they died. Israel occupied the strategic Golan Heights plateau in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981 in a move never recognised by the international community.
Analysts linked the escalation in border tensions to a February 24 air strike which targeted a Hezbollah position in Lebanon, close to the Syrian border, which the Shiite group blamed on Israel.
If confirmed, it would be the first Israeli attack against Hezbollah inside Lebanon since their 2006 war, which killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and some 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers. Hezbollah has vowed to respond to the air strike.
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