Syria says Israel fires tank shells into its territory
BEIRUT — Israeli troops opened fire Wednesday on two suspected militants who were trying to plant explosives on the Jewish state’s frontier with Syria, the Israeli military said. Syrian state media accused the Jewish state of targeting its forces with tank shells, and warned against such “adventures.”
In eastern Lebanon, Syrian warplanes conducted a series of airstrikes on the outskirts of a Lebanese border town, officials said. The violence along both frontiers shows how Syria’s three-year civil war is spilling over into its neighbours, destabilizing the wider region.
Israel’s military said its forces fired on what it called Hezbollah-affiliated militants on the Golan Heights and that “hits were identified.” The military did not explain how it knew of the men’s alleged links with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite group that is a sworn enemy of Israel.
Hezbollah officials were not immediately available for comment.
Syria’s state news agency SANA, citing a military source, said that Israeli forces fired four tank shells toward the Golan village of Hamidiyeh, hitting a school and a mosque early Wednesday. It said Israeli forces also fired another four shells toward another area called Houriyeh, and then opened fire a third time, again toward Hamidiyeh.
It said the attacks wounded seven members of the security forces and four civilians. It provided no further information.
In a cryptic comment, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said the Israeli “aggression” against Hamidiyeh in the Golan came because it “felt” the Syrian military had carried out a pre-emptive operation to secure its border with Israel.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that Israeli forces fired several tank shells and two missiles toward the Golan Heights. The group said one missile hit a school in the village of Hamidiyeh, where Syrian troops were concentrated. The Observatory obtains its news from a network of activists in Syria.
During Syria’s civil war, mortar rounds and artillery shells — apparently overshooting their targets inside Syria — have landed in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, prompting an Israeli response on several occasions.
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner described Wednesday’s shooting a response to a “substantially different threat” than what Israel has seen before: an attempt to plant a bomb directly on the border. That warranted a “more forceful response,” Lerner said, adding that the military fired multiple artillery rounds, and that they two suspected militants were the only targets.
Israel captured the Golan Heights, a mountainous plateau, from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. A U.N. peacekeeping force established in 1974 monitors the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Syria’s state news agency described Wednesday’s shooting as “aggressive acts,” and warned Israel of such “adventures and in testing our fighting capabilities.”
Israel and Hezbollah battled to a stalemate during a monthlong war in the summer of 2006.
Tensions between the two foes spiked last week when Israeli aircraft struck Hezbollah positions inside Lebanon. Hezbollah said it would retaliate but it was not clear whether Wednesday’s border shooting was related to that threat — or whether Hezbollah-affiliated militants were even involved as Israel claimed.
For the past year, Hezbollah has been deeply embroiled in Syria’s conflict, openly dispatching its fighters to battle alongside Assad-loyal forces.
Israel says Hezbollah has used the fighting in Syria as a cover to transfer weapons to Lebanon.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly vowed to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining sophisticated arms that could threaten the Jewish state’s military supremacy. Israel has carried out a series of covert airstrikes in Syria over the past year that targeted shipments of weapons believed to be bound for Hezbollah.
Also Wednesday, Lebanon’s state-run news agency reported that Israeli warplanes flying at low altitude carried out mock raids over the southern towns of Nabatiyeh and Iqlim al-Tuffah. It says the warplanes were accompanied by an unmanned Israeli reconnaissance aircraft.
The agency also reported that Israeli military helicopters were flying over the town of Shebaa close to the Golan Heights.
On Lebanon’s border with Syria, meanwhile, state media and officials said at least three strikes hit near the town of Arsal in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa valley, 12 kilometres (seven miles) from the Syrian border. One blast wounded a Syrian refugee woman and girl, a resident said.
Arsal’s residents strongly support the Syrian rebels, who regularly use the surrounding hills as a supply route into Syria. It lies just across from the rugged Qalamoun region, where forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have been on the offensive since November, trying to seize the rebel-held town of Yabroud.
Deputy mayor Ahmad Fliti said at least eight strikes hit around the town’s edges and the desolate Wadi Hmaied area, where hundreds of Syrian refugees — some of the tens of thousands in the area — live in a sprawling tent encampment.