As tensions soar in north, Netanyahu warns Syria and Lebanon against attacks

Amid friction with Hezbollah, PM says neighboring countries will bear responsibility for any assault; ministers instructed to make no comments on situation

Illustrative: IDF troops near the Israel-Syria border, in the Golan Heights on January 3, 2020. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Illustrative: IDF troops near the Israel-Syria border, in the Golan Heights on January 3, 2020. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Sunday that Syria and Lebanon would bear responsibility for any attack against Israel emanating from their territories, amid heightened tensions between the Jewish state and the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group along the northern border.

Speaking at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said Israel had a “consistent policy to not allow Iran to entrench militarily on our northern border.

“Lebanon and Syria bear responsibility for any attack from their territory against Israel,” he said. “We will not allow anyone to upend our security or threaten our citizens; we won’t tolerate an attack on our forces… The IDF is prepared to respond to any threat.”

Meanwhile cabinet ministers were instructed to make no comments on the situation in the north, in an apparent effort to avoid exacerbating tensions.

Tensions between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which maintains a presence in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights, have been high since a July 20 airstrike in southern Syria attributed to Israel, in which one of the organization’s fighters was killed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, June 30, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The tensions continued to simmer over the weekend as the Israeli military stepped up its defenses along the country’s northern borders out of concern over a potential attack against military targets there.

According to a report on Saturday in Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese news network closely associated with Hezbollah, Israel has sent a message to Hezbollah warning against any retaliatory action in response to the strike. Israel has conveyed that it did not know the group member — Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad — was near the targets in southern Syria and did not intend to kill him.

The message was delivered via UN intermediaries and Hezbollah refused to adhere to the “warnings and threats from Israel,” according to the Al Mayadeen report.

Israel has refused to officially comment on the incident, keeping its policy of ambiguity regarding its operations against Iran and its proxies in Syria.

Israel has also warned Beirut it would bear responsibility for any possible Hezbollah strike.

Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad, a member of the Hezbollah terror group, whom the organization says was killed in an Israeli airstrike on July 20, 2020. (Hezbollah media)

In the past, Hezbollah has vowed to retaliate for losses of its soldiers in Syria with attacks on Israel. This was the case in September, when the terror group fired three anti-tank guided missiles at Israeli military targets along the Lebanese border, narrowly missing an IDF armored ambulance with five soldiers inside, after the IDF killed two of its fighters in Syria the month before.

The airstrike attributed to Israel on Monday night hit weapons depots and military positions belonging to Syrian regime forces and Iran-backed militia fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The group said the aerial bombardments caused several explosions around the town of Kiswah, an area that has long been associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Reuters news agency reported that the assault hit targets in the towns of Jabal al Mane, Muqaylabiya and Zakiya, causing “huge blasts” and allegedly killing Iranian personnel.

On Friday night, Israeli attack helicopters struck several military targets in southern Syria belonging to the Syrian military, in response to munitions fired at Israel earlier in the day, the Israel Defense Forces said.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the strikes injured two soldiers, hit three sites and caused fires.

The incident in the morning saw explosions heard along the border and shrapnel striking a home and a car on the Israeli side in the Druze town of Majdal Shams, causing light damage. The cause was reported to be either anti-aircraft fire toward an IDF observation balloon or an artillery shell fired from Syria toward Israel, possibly by accident.

Also Friday, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, made an unannounced visit to Israel, meeting with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, IDF chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi and Mossad director Yossi Cohen, along with other top brass. Israeli television commentators speculated on the possible significance of the visit, particularly regarding the threat posed by Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers stationed along the border with Lebanon on July 23, 2020. (Basel Awidat/FLASH90)

Beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday night, roadblocks were installed along a number of highways to prevent military vehicles vulnerable to attack from anti-tank guided missiles fired from either Lebanon or Syria from driving on certain roads.

Entrances to some communities where the military maintains a presence that are exposed to attack were also blocked for IDF vehicles. As the military assessed that Hezbollah planned to attack only IDF targets, civilian vehicles were able to travel freely throughout the area.

The military also cleared some troops out of positions directly along the border, moving them deeper into Israel, so that they would not represent a clear target for Hezbollah, while still allowing them to defend the frontier.

The IDF has also stepped up its intelligence collection efforts along the border in recent days. Throughout the day on Friday, Lebanese media reported on large numbers of Israeli drones flying overhead.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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