In his first public comments after IDF troops killed four Islamic State fighters in a confrontation along the northern border with Syria, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Monday that Israel would not tolerate any provocations by the group and would respond unilaterally to attacks with “full force.”
Speaking at his Yisrael Beytenu’s weekly faction meeting at the Knesset, Liberman said aggression against IDF soldiers would be met with an “immediate” response, and without coordination with other countries fighting in Syria.
“For the first time an Islamic State force attacked our soldiers and we replied appropriately — with a powerful response,” Liberman said. “Israel is not looking for a fight but when we are faced with provocation — in Gaza, on the Syrian or Lebanese borders — we will respond with full force, as was done here.”
Sunday saw the first case of an IS affiliate deliberately attacking Israeli troops inside Israel. Numerous mortar shells have fallen inside Israel, some of which may have been fired by these terrorist groups, though most were likely spillover from the fighting in Syria rather than a directed attack.
The incident was sparked when soldiers from the Golani Brigade’s reconnaissance unit crossed the security fence with Syria to conduct an “ambush operation,” while remaining inside Israeli territory. The troops came under small arms fire from members of the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, formerly known as the Yarmouk Martyr’s Brigade, an Israel Defense Forces spokesperson said.
They returned fire, but soon came under attack from mortar shells. In response, the Israel Air Force targeted a truck “that had some sort of machine gun on top of it” and killed the four terrorists who were riding in it, the spokesperson said.
Military officials have since described the incident as a one-off, saying they did not expect the jihadists to press ahead with more attacks on Israeli troops.
Asked if Israel had coordinated with other countries fighting in Syria or planned to in the future, Liberman said that when attacked on its sovereign territory, Israel had no need to coordinate with anyone else and would respond “immediately.”
“When we identify the source of fire, we respond to it. If not, then the sovereign is Assad’s army and we will respond there,” he added.
Echoing Liberman, Netanyahu told his own Likud faction that Israel would not allow any Islamic extremist groups to open a new front on the country’s borders.
“There have been several attempts to attack Israel’s forces along the border,” the prime minister said. “We will not allow any drizzle [of assaults], and if necessary, we will attack the enemy.”
Both the IS-affiliated Khalid ibn al-Walid Army and the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly the al-Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaeda, have been present on Israel’s borders for years, though they and the IDF had maintained a “live and let live” relationship until Sunday.
Since March 2011, when the war broke out, dozens of mortars have landed in Israeli territory as a result of spillover fighting. The IDF often responds to fire that crosses into Israel by striking Syrian army posts.
Israel has maintained a policy of holding Damascus responsible for all fire from Syria into Israel regardless of the source.
Israel has also reportedly carried out airstrikes against Hezbollah and the Syrian Army deep inside the country to prevent arms transfers, with some of those reportedly coordinated with the US.
Since Russia became heavily involved in Syria, Jerusalem and Moscow have held several top-level meetings aimed at making sure their forces do not become entangled in the labyrinthine civil war.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.