Regime-linked Syrian news outlets reported Monday that the army had captured an IDF jeep from rebels during heavy fighting in a town on the Lebanese border, touting the find as proof that Jerusalem was aiding the rebel forces.
An Israel Defense Forces spokesperson told The Times of Israel that, based on the identification number seen in footage of the vehicle, the jeep had belonged to the now-defunct South Lebanon Army, and had been out of commission for more than a decade.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit also called the report “crude propaganda.”
The SLA was supported by Jerusalem with weapons and equipment during Israel’s occupation of the so-called “security zone” in southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000.
The force quickly fell apart after Israel pulled out, with Hezbollah filling the power vacuum in the area.
According to the state-run SANA news agency, Syrian troops found the jeep during fighting in Qusair. The report said the jeep held advanced Israeli surveillance and jamming equipment.
Israeli TV reports immediately dismissed the claim, positing that Hezbollah forces, which have ben fighting with President Bashar Assad’s forces, brought the elderly vehicle into the combat zone to bolster Assad’s claims that Israel is helping the rebels.
Footage released by the pro-Hezbollah al-Madayeen news channel showed a dusty, badly dented bulletproof jeep with IDF markings on its body. The outlet said the jeep had been found alongside a raised Israeli flag.
On Saturday, Assad told an Argentinian newspaper that Israel was providing Syria rebel groups with “logistical support and is even instructing them which targets to attack.”
Qusair, a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border, has been the site of ferocious urban fighting this week. Syrian troops, alongside Hezbollah fighters, pressed an attack into the town center, attempting to dislodge opposition forces from the strategic city. The opposition estimates that some 40,000 civilians are currently in the town.
At least 28 elite members of Hezbollah were killed in the fighting, activists said Monday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria’s civil war, said that more than 70 Hezbollah fighters have also been wounded in the fighting around Qusair. If confirmed, the casualties would be a significant blow to the Iranian-backed Shiite group, which has come under harsh criticism at home for its involvement in the war next door.
A staunch ally of Assad, Hezbollah is heavily invested in the survival of the Damascus regime. The Lebanese group’s growing role in the conflict also points to the deeply sectarian nature of the war in Syria, in which a rebellion driven by the country’s Sunni majority seeks to overthrow a regime dominated by the president’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The increasingly overt Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian conflict is almost certain to threaten stability in Lebanon, which is sharply split along sectarian lines, and between supporters and opponents of Assad.
The Observatory, which relies on a wide network of activists on the ground in Syria, cited “sources close to the militant group” for the death toll but declined to reveal their identity. It said at least 50 Syrian rebels were also killed in the battle for Qusair on Sunday, including two commanders.
Qusair has been the target of a withering government offensive in recent weeks, and the countryside around the town has been engulfed in fighting as regime troops backed by Hezbollah fighters seized villages while closing in on Qusair itself. The intensity of the fighting reflects the importance that both sides attach to the area.
In the regime’s calculations, Qusair lies along a strategic land corridor linking Damascus with the Mediterranean coast, the Alawite heartland. For the rebels, overwhelmingly Sunni Qusair has served as a conduit for shipments of weapons and supplies smuggled from Lebanon to opposition fighters inside Syria.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011.