IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz toured the Golan near the border with Syria Tuesday, and told lawmakers that tensions in the north could quickly devolve into war.
Other senior officials echoed his worries, with Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan warning that it was only a matter of time before major Israeli cities started getting pounded by rockets.
The statements were made the day before a large Home Front Command drill scheduled for the Ashkelon region in the south of the country, which comes against the backdrop of increasingly harsh rhetoric on both sides of the border.
Gantz toured hours after the IDF shot at a Syrian position that had fired at a patrol during the night.
Apparently reporting on the same incident, the Syrian army on Tuesday claimed responsibility for firing on and destroying an Israeli vehicle along “with those in it.”
Speaking earlier at a conference in the north of the country Gantz described the precarious security situation that Israel faces in an unstable and volatile region, and said things could spiral out of control at a moment’s notice.
“A day doesn’t go by in which we don’t have to make decisions that could lead us to a sudden and uncontrollable deterioration,” he said. “That is something that will be with us for the near future. We need to be more alert.”
Speaking to reporters before the drill, Tuesday, Erdan said rockets falling on densely populated areas in Israel “are only a matter of time,”
“The question is no longer will rockets be fired at the large populated areas in Israel; the question is when it’ll happen,” Erdan told reporters during a briefing.
Erdan said the answer to the question of “when” doesn’t really matter, because “it could happen tonight, it could happen next week. Flare-ups along our borders aren’t something only dependent on the IDF or its will.”
On Sunday, The UK’s Sunday Times reported that large Syrian missiles had been trained on Tel Aviv and elsewhere to retaliate should Israeli planes strike inside Syria again, as they reportedly did three times over the lasts several months to stop weapons transfers.
Gantz, however, said the connection between action and reaction is not always dramatic.
“It doesn’t mean that if we do something on the Golan Heights that there is immediately a big military incident in the Sinai,” he said. “But it could happen. There are other influences, sometimes of less significance and importance, but we can see the connection between Gaza and Sinai, between Gaza and Judea and Samaria, and between Syria and Lebanon.”
On Monday, Yuval Steinitz, minister of international affairs and strategy, said it was in Israel’s interest to see President Bashar Assad removed from rule in Syria — contradicting recent intimations from Israeli defense officials — and revealed that there are European countries hankering for a military threat against Iran’s nuclear program.
Steinitz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that removing Assad would deal a significant blow to the region’s axis of evil and would weaken both Iran and Hezbollah. By removing Syria from the equation, Iran’s ability to operate through Hezbollah would be weakened, he explained.
“In my opinion, the right thing from our point of view is that the Iranian axis should stop ruling Syria through the form of Assad,” Steinitz said, according to a report in Maariv on Tuesday.
The minister’s comments apparently challenge the opinions of some within the military establishment that prefer Assad’s regime to the prospect of a lawless Syria that might enable extremist groups to take up positions right on Israel’s border.
In an interview with the Times of London last week, an unnamed senior defense official said that Israel had miscalculated Assad’s ability to maintain control of his country despite an increasingly bloody and gruesome two-year war. “We originally underestimated Assad’s staying power and overestimated the rebels’ fighting power,” he told the Times.
“Better the devil we know than the demons we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos and the extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there,” the official said.
Defense Ministry official Maj.-Gen. (Res) Amos Gilad said in an interview with Israel Radio last week that Assad was in total control of his country’s weapons systems and was acting sensibly with regard to Israel, in comments apparently intended to calm escalating tensions between Jerusalem and Damascus following reported Israeli airstrikes earlier this month.
Gilad stressed that Israel was not striving to topple Assad’s regime, and that reported recent IAF attacks on Iranian weapons shipments in Syria en route to Hezbollah were motivated purely by defensive calculations.
Syria’s location as Lebanon’s only neighbor besides Israel makes it a key transit point for weapons transferred from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Steinitz made it clear that it will act to prevent terrorist organizations from obtaining capabilities that pose a serious threat to Israel.
“Israel is making every effort to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to terror organizations,” he said.
Nonetheless, Steinitz, said the real strategic target was the Iranian nuclear program. He noted that some European countries were becoming nervous about the apparent failure of sanctions against Tehran.
“If the North Koreans today have three nuclear bombs, the Iranian threat to the world is 30 to 50 times as much,” he said. “Right from the start the Iranian infrastructure was built on much bigger proportions. We have received messages from different European countries that told us that the time has come to present a military threat to Iran because sanctions alone are not enough.”