IDF denies report troops entered Syria unauthorized, sparked deadly firefight
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IDF denies report troops entered Syria unauthorized, sparked deadly firefight

Haaretz claims officer responsible for the raid has history of going rogue, contradicting IDF account of the exchange, in which at least one Syrian civilian was reportedly killed

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli soldiers are seen at the Quneitra border crossing in the Golan Heights, on March 23, 2019, ahead of demonstrations over US President Donald Trump's recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the area. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Illustrative: Israeli soldiers are seen at the Quneitra border crossing in the Golan Heights, on March 23, 2019, ahead of demonstrations over US President Donald Trump's recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the area. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday denied key details in an investigative report in the Haaretz daily about a cross-border raid into Syria last year in which at least one Syrian national was killed.

The exposé focused on the commander of the troops who conducted the operation — Lt. Guy Eliyahu — whom the newspaper claimed had a history of ignoring or violating orders and covering up his actions while his superiors looked the other way.

The article focused on a case in which Eliyahu’s unit — a team in the Golani Brigade’s famed reconnaissance battalion — engaged in a firefight in southern Syria in the predawn hours of January 24, 2019.

According to an unidentified source, Eliyahu’s team was patrolling along the Syrian frontier when “they decided that they wanted to go to a house on the other side of the border.” The source said that they then indeed entered Syrian territory without seeking or receiving approval from higher-ranking officers, which would be a highly irregular — and punishable — action by a lieutenant, as it could lead to soldiers being captured on foreign soil.

The lieutenant then reportedly knocked on the door of the house west of the Syrian border town of Jubata al-Khashab and called out in Arabic for those inside to open the door. At that point, the people inside — whom Haaretz said were not part of a terrorist group but were Syrian civilians — opened fire at the intruders, apparently thinking the IDF soldiers were pro-Iranian militiamen, prompting Eliyahu’s troops to return fire before they rushed back into Israeli territory. Only once they were back in Israel, did Eliyahu report to his commanders what had happened, according to the article.

View of the border fence with Syria from the Israeli side in the Golan Heights, on July 23, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

No Israeli troops were injured. According to Haaretz, two or three Syrians were killed in the exchange. Syrian media reported at the time that one person was killed and five were injured.

Though the IDF on Thursday confirmed that a firefight occurred — and had told reporters about the exchange at the time, albeit with minimal details — the military denied the article’s key claims, principally in the order of events and the involvement of senior officers.

In a statement, the IDF spokesperson said the soldiers had not entered Syrian territory on a whim, without notifying superiors, and then come under fire, but had first been shot at and only then — with authorization — crossed the border.

“During their operations, IDF soldiers saw shots being fired at them and responded with gunfire to remove the threat. Contrary to what was claimed, the troops did not cross the border into Syria on their own initiative and did not go to the house in violation of orders,” the military said.

A UN peacekeeper from the UNDOF force stands guard on a watchtower at the Quneitra Crossing between Syria and the Golan Heights, Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

“The crossing of the United Nations-marked border was done after the troops were fired upon and upon receiving permission from qualified officials in real time,” the IDF wrote in its statement.

The military also denied that Eliyahu had commanded the operation, rather saying that the commander of the company — a higher ranking officer — led the mission.

“We’d like to stress that the troops reported on the exchange at the time and requested assistance, so the claim that the event was reported after the fact, and only after they returned to Israeli territory, is bizarre and incorrect,” the IDF said.

The military denied that the incident had been “covered up” and said it had been investigated by the head of the regional brigade, the head of the Golani Brigade, the commander of the regional division and the commander of the Northern Command.

“The attempt to portray this as a cover-up or a concealment during the operation or afterward and to claim that a number of senior IDF officers participated in the cover-up is a lie and false on every level,” the military wrote.

The exchange of fire in question occurred days after a flareup of violence between Israel and Iran in Syria.

Trails left by the Iron Dome air defense system intercepting a Syrian projectile over Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, on January 20, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

On January 20, Israel reportedly conducted a rare daylight missile attack on Iranian targets in Syria. In response, several hours later Iran fired a surface-to-surface missile at the northern Golan Heights, which was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system over the Mount Hermon ski resort, according to the IDF.

The following morning, the Israel Air Force launched retaliatory strikes on Iranian targets near Damascus and on the Syrian air defense batteries that fired upon the attacking Israeli fighter jets, the army said.

Twenty-one people were killed in the Israeli raids in Syria early on Monday, 12 of them Iranian fighters, a Britain-based Syrian war monitor said.

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