Israel has carried out dozens of strikes against Hezbollah to prevent the Lebanese group from obtaining advanced weapons, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday, a rare Israeli admission of involvement in a series of air attacks in Syria.
Netanyahu made the comments while on a tour of the Golan Heights, where Israeli officials have warned Hezbollah and Iranian fighters may try to set up a base across the border in Syria to launch attacks against Israelis.
Saying that he was proud of Israel’s ability to maintain “relative quiet and security” in an otherwise stormy Middle East, he told soldiers stationed there: “We act when we have to act, including here and across the border, with dozens of strikes, to prevent Hezbollah acquiring tie-breaking weaponry.”
He added that Israel was active against the Shiite organization on other fronts too, “both near and far.”
“If we need to go to war, and this possibility stands before us and because of that you are here, it’s because we weren’t able to prevent dangers to the State of Israel in any other way,” he said.
Netanyahu’s comments could be seen as the latest saber-rattling in a war of words between Israel and Hezbollah — which fought an actual war in 2006. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to hit Israeli chemical and nuclear sites in separate speeches over the past months.
Analysts say the group has been increasingly squeezed by recent moves in Gulf states and the Sunni-dominated Arab League to blacklist the group, considered a proxy of Iran, over its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
On Saturday, Julian Roepke of the German Bild newspaper reported that Hezbollah had acquired a game-changing SA-17 missile battery originally given to the Assad regime by Russia.
The Buk, as it’s also known, is a medium-range surface-to-air missile system with an attack radius of approximately 30 miles (50 kilometers). It can strike targets flying at altitudes of 30,000-80,000 feet (10,000-24,000 kilometers) and would constitute a real threat to aircraft such as helicopters.
Israel has long feared that the Shiite terror group would acquire the SA-17 system and has allegedly targeted a number of Hezbollah weapon convoys and caches over the years in Syria and Lebanon to prevent the transfers, though Jerusalem has generally refused to confirm involvement in specific strikes.
In 2013, US officials claimed Israeli aircraft targeted a shipment of SA-17 missiles en route to Lebanon.
On Wednesday, global intelligence firm Stratfor revealed satellite images of an area on the northern Lebanese-Syrian border which indicate that Hezbollah has been consolidating positions it conquered from Syrian rebels in June 2013.
The terror organization has reportedly been constructing a fortified base inside Syria that it may be using to store Iranian ballistic missiles with the range to hit Israel.
Other sources cited in the report said there are long-range missiles at the base including Iranian-manufactured Shabab-1, Shabab-2, and Fateh-110 ballistic missiles, although there was no satellite confirmation to back up the claim.
The missiles are estimated to have ranges from 200 to at least 1,000 kilometers (125-625 miles), putting all of Israel within striking distance.
Judah Ari Gross and Stuart Winer contributed to this report.