Israeli warplanes unleashed a series of airstrikes on Syrian military posts yesterday, killing one soldier and wounding seven in one of the most serious clashes between the Middle East neighbours in four decades.
The airstrikes came in retaliation for a roadside bombing a day earlier in the occupied Golan Heights that wounded four Israeli soldiers on patrol along the frontier with Syria.
The overnight raids marked a sharp escalation of activity for Israel, which has stayed on the sidelines during Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s battle against rebels trying to topple him. It is unclear which of the many groups fighting in Syria may have planted Tuesday’s bomb. But Israel has said it holds Mr Assad responsible for any attacks emanating from his country, and accused his forces of allowing the attack to take place.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Our policy is clear. We hurt those who hurt us.”
Defence minister Moshe Yaalon said Mr Assad would “regret his actions” if attacks continue.
Israel captured the Golan Heights, a plateau overlooking northern Israel, from Syria in the 1967 war. It later annexed the area, though this is not internationally recognised.
Gunfire and mortar shells from the fighting in Syria have occasionally landed in the Golan Heights in recent years. Israel has said much of the fire was errant, but has responded with artillery fire in several cases. None of those reprisals, however, were as intense as yesterday’s airstrikes.
The Israeli military said its warplanes hit a Syrian army training facility, an army HQ and artillery batteries. Israel also had carried out artillery strikes against Syrian military targets shortly after Tuesday’s bombing.
The Syrian military said the raids yesterday targeted three army posts near the town of Quneitra, on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan. It confirmed the death of one soldier and said seven were wounded.
The Syrian army denounced the airstrikes as Israel’s “desperate attempt to escalate and worsen the situation” and to divert attention from Damascus’ advances on the battlefront, especially the capture last weekend of a key rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border.
“Repeating such hostile acts [airstrikes] would endanger the security and stability of the region and make it open to all possibilities,” a Syrian military said.
Analysts said they did not expect the situation to deteriorate, since neither Israel nor Syria is interested in all-out war. Mr Assad is focused on his battle against the rebels and Israel has little desire to upset a period of relative quiet. Syria’s ally, Hezbollah, possesses tens of thousands of rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.
The area has seen an increase in tensions in recent weeks. Last week, a roadside bomb exploded near an Israeli patrol along the Lebanese border, causing no injuries. Israel responded with tank and artillery fire at Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon.
Earlier this month, the Israeli army said it killed two militants affiliated to Hezbollah – whose forces are fighting in Syria alongside Assad’s troops – as they were trying to plant a bomb along the frontier.
Also, an Israeli airstrike last month reportedly targeted a Hezbollah weapons convoy in north-east Lebanon, though officials in Israel never confirmed it. Hezbollah said it would retaliate for the airstrike, which killed a Hezbollah official overseeing the operation.
Israel stopped short of blaming Hezbollah for Tuesday’s bombing, but officials said the group was the main suspect.