IDF chief tours tense northern border amid fears of Iranian strike

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot hears ‘situational assessment’ from commanders along Syrian frontier, meets with local leaders; visit follows call by army to open area’s bomb shelters

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

IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, center-right, meets with senior officers from the Northern Command amid concerns of potential Iranian missile strike against northern Israel on May 9, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, center-right, meets with senior officers from the Northern Command amid concerns of potential Iranian missile strike against northern Israel on May 9, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The army’s top brass met with local leaders of communities on the Golan Heights on Wednesday as Israeli troops in the region were on high alert amid concerns that Iran may look to carry out a retaliatory strike against the Jewish state.

“As part of the meeting, the commanders updated the local council leaders about the findings of a situational assessment and they discussed the preparedness of the communities and the civilian home front,” the Israel Defense Forces said.

Earlier, IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot spoke with head of the Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, Home Front Command chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, and the head of the Bashan Division, which defends the Golan Heights, Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher.

On Tuesday night, the IDF released a highly unusual warning to residents of the Golan Heights, calling for local governments to open public bomb shelters, after “abnormal movements of Iranian forces in Syria” were identified by Military Intelligence.

An Iron Dome missile defense system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, is deployed in northern Israel on May 7, 2018. (Jalaa Mary/AFP)

“The IDF is ready and prepared for a variety of scenarios and warns that any action against Israel will be answered with a fierce retaliation,” the army said.

The army also announced it had deployed missile defense batteries in northern Israel and said “there is high preparedness of IDF troops for an attack.”

This frame grab from video provided on Wednesday, May, 9, 2018 by Syria News, shows people standing in front of flames rising after an attack on an area known to have numerous Syrian army military bases, in Kisweh, south of Damascus, Syria on Tuesday. (Syria News, via AP)

Hours later, Syrian state media reported Israel conducted an airstrike in el-Kiswah, south of Damascus, an area that had previously been identified as the site of an Iranian military base. Israel refuses to comment on its operations abroad, as a matter of policy.

The strike targeted a weapons cache belonging to Iran and its main proxy, Hezbollah, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

The Observatory said the raid killed 15 pro-regime fighters, eight of them from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

On Wednesday morning, the army called for residents of the Golan Heights to go about their “civilian routine,” but said it remained at high alert.

“Following an assessment in the Northern Command, [officials] decided to allow an unimpeded civilian routine to continue, with an emphasis on school activities and agricultural work continuing as usual,” the army said.

The military added that hikes in the area could only go forward with IDF approval and that “a number of tourist sites will be closed on a per-case basis.”

Representatives from the town of Katzrin and the Golan Regional Council, along with the mayors of the Druze villages of Majdal Shams, Masade, Buqata and Ein Qiniyye attended the meeting with Eisenkot and the generals, the army said.

IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot and senior army officers meet with the heads of local Golan Heights governments amid concerns of potential Iranian missile strike against northern Israel on May 9, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The chief of staff expressed his great appreciation for the leadership and civilian resilience shown by the heads of the local governments and residents of the Golan Heights,” the army said.

Golan Regional Council leader Eli Malka told Army Radio on Wednesday morning that “concern is high,” but said the local communities were prepared.

“We’re at a high level of readiness and have undertaken our preparations,” he said. “We’ve worked with the army in recent years to prepare each village to be ready for days like these. The shelters are ready, the people are resilient.”

In Katzrin, the largest town on the plateau, officials said they had been preparing the municipal bomb shelters over the past week, and had opened them after receiving instructions to do so from the IDF.

On Tuesday, the US embassy in Israel prohibited American government employees from visiting the Golan Heights without approval in light of the security situation on the border.

An Israeli soldier next to Merkava Mark IV tanks in the Golan Heights during a military drill on May 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JALAA MAREY)

The army’s announcement on Tuesday night followed multiple warnings by Israeli defense officials of a potential Iranian missile strike on military targets in northern Israel and came just before US President Donald Trump announced that the United States was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and imposing new sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

The el-Kiswah strike on Tuesday appeared to be part of Israel’s ongoing efforts to prevent Iran from actualizing its threats of revenge for the bombing of the T-4 army base in Syria on April 9, which killed at least seven members of the IRGGC. The air raid was widely attributed to Israel, though Jerusalem refused to comment on it. (T-4 was the base from which Israel said Iran launched an attack drone into Israel in February.) Late last month, a second strike, allegedly conducted by Israel, against an Iranian-controlled base in northern Syria was said to have killed more than two dozen Iranian soldiers.

Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, a member of the security cabinet, told the Ynet news site on Wednesday that Israel was using “our force, our readiness, our intelligence knowledge to find [Iranian plans] and to thwart them before they are carried out.”

On Sunday night, Israeli defense officials warned that Iran was planning to retaliate for recent deadly airstrikes in Syria, which have been attributed to the Jewish state, by having its proxies fire missiles at military targets in northern Israel sometime in the near future.

Security forces were also preparing for the possibility of attempted infiltrations of military bases and communities in the north, Hadashot TV news reported on Monday.

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