Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Israel and Syria exchange fire in the Golan Heights

A cross-border exchange of fire in the Golan Heights between the Israeli and Syrian armies early on Tuesday triggered a claim by the Damascus regime that a jeep manned by Israeli troops had entered Syrian territory and was destroyed.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) denied the claim, saying shots were deliberately fired at a patrol inside the Israeli-controlled the Golan Heights, causing minor damage and no injuries. “In response, IDF forces returned precise fire at the source and reported a direct hit,” it said.

It was the latest in a string of cross-border incidents in recent months, which have raised concerns that the two-year-old civil war in Syria could spill over into the neighbouring Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied for more than 40 years.

Israel has also launched air strikes on weapons targets inside Syria three times since the start of the year, intensifying fears that the civil war could develop a regional dimension.

A statement from the Syrian army, published on the official Syrian Arab News Agency (Sana) about six hours after the shooting incident, said it had “destroyed an Israeli vehicle with everyone in it” that entered Syria.

It was the third time in four days that shots fired in Syria have crossed into the Israeli-occupied Golan, close to Israeli army outposts or patrols, according Israeli reports. There have been a further three occasions this month when mortar shells have landed in the Golan.

Until now, the IDF has maintained that such cross-border incidents are accidental, rather than aimed at its forces. However, Israel Radio quoted officials as saying that this week’s gunfire was deliberately targeted at patrolling IDF troops.

The Israeli military chief of staff, Benny Gantz, warned that Israel risked being drawn into a “security deterioration in our region at any moment, a deterioration which could rapidly spin out of control”.

Visiting the Golan on Tuesday, he added: “Not a day goes by when we are not faced with decisions which could lead us to a sudden and out-of-control deterioration. This is the situation that will accompany us in the near term and we need to be more alert because of it.”

Israel has reinforced the fence along the border between the Golan Heights and Syria, and has increased its military patrols in the area.

According to a report in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, a large-scale “home front” security drill is to be held in the area on Wednesday. It quoted the mayor of Majdal Shams, the largest town in the Golan, populated mainly by Druze supportive of the Syrian regime, as saying there were no public shelters in the area and few residents have purpose-built safe areas at home.

“Only people who live in relatively new houses have a protected space in their homes,” Dolan Abu Saleh told the paper. “The IDF recently hooked us up to the automatic warning system, and two weeks ago a siren sounded here in real time as a result of an incident that occurred near the border.” Tension in the area was rising, he added.

Meanwhile a Syrian rebel seriously injured in fighting across the border was treated in the Ziv hospital in northern Israel. Israel Radio said the man had been brought initially to an IDF field hospital by Israeli soldiers. It did not explain how Israeli forces reached the injured man.


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