'It is not the time to bark, it is the time to bite'

After Syria clash, Liberman says Israel will ‘respond to any provocation’

Defense minister also hails security cooperation with PA after Palestinian police protect IDF soldiers from Jenin mob

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, second right, speaks at a press conference during a visit to the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona on February 13, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, second right, speaks at a press conference during a visit to the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona on February 13, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday broke his silence on the weekend’s aerial clashes with Syria and Iran, saying Israel will “respond to any provocation” and will “not accept any limitations” from Russia on its goal of protecting Israeli citizens.

“We will respond to any provocation and defend our crucial security interests,” he said at Kiryat Shmona city hall, during a tour of defense contractors in the area.

During the press conference, he announced that he’d reached an agreement with the Finance Ministry to provide an additional NIS 150 million ($42.5 million) to northern Israeli cities, including Kiryat Shmona, to improve bomb shelters and other protective areas.

The defense minister addressed the fact that he hadn’t made public comments on Saturday’s incidents.

“It is not the time to bark, it is the time to bite,” he said. “And we bite hard.”

The remains of an Iranian drone that was shot down by the Israeli Air Force after it penetrated Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

On Saturday morning, an Iranian drone was flown into Israeli territory, near the Jordanian border, where it was shot down by an Apache attack helicopter. In response to the drone incursion, Israeli jets attacked the mobile command center from which it was operated, the army said.

During the reprisal raid, one of the eight Israeli F-16 fighter jets that took part in the operation was apparently hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile and crashed. The Israeli Air Force then conducted a second round of airstrikes, destroying between a third and half of Syria’s air defenses, according to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.

One of the lingering questions following the strike was how Russia, Syria’s staunch ally and military backer, would react — specifically if Moscow would work to prevent future Israeli attacks in the country.

“There are no limitations. We are not accepting any limitations. We acted with determination and with responsibility,” Liberman said.

He added that Israel was in contact with Russia and that the relationship “is effective, even when we don’t agree.”

Asked if he was “satisfied” with America’s response to Saturday’s events, the defense minister called the question “a bit naive.”

“What does ‘satisfied’ mean? The USA is acting according to its interests,” Liberman said.

The White House had expressed support for Israel’s retaliatory military strikes in Syria and called on Iran to “cease provocative actions” in the region.

“Israel is a staunch ally of the United States, and we support its right to defend itself from the Iranian-backed Syrian and militia forces in southern Syria,” a statement by US President Donald Trump’s office read, echoing earlier comments by the State Department and the Pentagon.

Said, Liberman, “They don’t ask us for advice, and far be it from me to give them advice on how to run their security and foreign policies, but we are certainly quite satisfied by the back-up given to Israel from the US.”

In praise of security coordination

The defense minister also praised Israel’s security coordination with the Palestinian Authority after PA police helped rescue two soldiers who came under attack after accidentally entering the West Bank city of Jenin on Monday.

“I have to offer a good word to the security coordination and to the Palestinian police officers,” he said.

It was rare public praise for the Palestinian police from Liberman, often a staunch critic of the PA and its president, Mahmoud Abbas. Still, he stressed that he did not believe the Palestinians maintained the security coordination out of love for Israel, but rather out of “mutual benefit.”

People in Jenin surrounding a car with two Israeli soldiers in it, on February 13, 2018.

The two Israeli soldiers, a man and a woman, drove into the Palestinian city after getting lost while relying on the navigation application Waze, against army policy. Their car was quickly surrounded by Jenin residents, who attacked their car with stones and chairs and clawed at the soldiers.

The female soldier sustained a deep cut to her face from broken glass and was hospitalized. One of the soldiers’ guns was also stolen, but was later recovered by PA security services and returned to the army early Tuesday morning.

In video footage from the scene, a Palestinian police officer could be seen trying to protect the soldiers, who were eventually able to drive away from the area and reach a nearby checkpoint, where they received medical care.

“I’m thankful the soldiers are back and healthy — though you can’t say fully,” Liberman said. “The returning of the gun also points to the constant, deep security coordination in the field.”

Editor’s note: The article has been updated with the correct amount of money allocated by the Finance Ministry for improving bomb shelters and protective areas in northern Israel.

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