TV report cites fears Iran may hit Israeli target overseas

Israel tries to dissociate itself from claim of responsibility for Syria raid

Hours after NYTimes’ Tom Friedman quotes Israeli official acknowledging attack on ‘Iranian targets’ last week, columnist updates article with IDF objection

Illustrative: A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)
Illustrative: A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)

Underlining the current acute sensitivity of Israel’s high stakes face-off with Iran, the Israeli army on Monday sought to dissociate itself from an unnamed IDF source who had acknowledged to The New York Times that Israel had carried out last Monday’s pre-dawn raid on an Iranian military facility in Syria, in which at least seven Iranians were killed.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry earlier Monday publicly threatened that Iran would respond to the attack and that Israel would come to regret it. Israel’s Channel 10 news assessed on Monday night that an Iranian response was “a matter of when rather than if.” Hadashot TV said that the Israeli defense establishment is concerned that Iran might seek to hit an Israeli or Jewish target abroad.

In an article headlined “The Real Next War in Syria: Iran vs. Israel,” Times columnist Thomas Friedman had quoted the Israeli military source as saying of last week’s strike: “It was the first time we attacked live Iranian targets — both facilities and people.”

The senior official further noted to Friedman that the strike on the T-4 Air Base near Palmyra in central Syria came after Iran launched an explosives-laden drone into Israeli airspace in February. The strike reportedly targeted Iran’s entire attack drone program at the base. The drone incident was “the first time we saw Iran do something against Israel — not by proxy,” the official said. “This opened a new period.”

New York Times columnist, Thomas L. Friedman. (Rebecca Zeffert/Flash90)

Later Monday, however, Friedman updated his article with the following paragraph in parentheses, after he was contacted by the IDF Spokesman’s office: “After the story appeared, the Israeli Army’s spokesman’s office disputed the characterization and accuracy of the raid by my Israeli source, and emphasized that Israel maintains its policy to avoid commenting on media reports regarding the raid on the T4 airfield and other events. He would not comment further.”

It wasn’t entirely clear from the update whether the IDF was flatly denying the unnamed officer’s acknowledgement of Israeli responsibility for the strike. It also appeared contradictory, because it featured comments from the IDF Spokesman asserting that the IDF was not commenting on the issue.

The February drone incursion into Israel marked an unprecedented direct Iranian attack. On Friday, the Israeli military revealed that the drone had been carrying explosives, and was headed to an unspecified target in Israel, where it could have caused damage. Israel’s acknowledgement of the nature of the drone’s mission “brings the confrontation” between Israel and Iran “into the open” for the first time, Channel 10 noted Friday.

Tehran threatened on Monday to deliver a response to the alleged Israeli strike, saying it would come “at the right time” and that Israel would “regret” what it had done.

“The Zionist entity will sooner or later receive the necessary response and will regret its misdeeds,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi told reporters in a weekly meeting, according to Iranian news media.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi briefs journalists at a press conference in Tehran, on August 22, 2016. (screen capture: YouTube)

“The Zionist regime should not be able to take action and be exempt from punishment,” Qasemi said, adding that “the Syrian and resistance forces will respond in a timely fashion and appropriately in the region.”

The warning came after a senior military leader in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps last week warned that Iran would destroy Israel if it continued its actions.

On Thursday, Ali Shirazi, liaison for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the elite Quds Force, said that “Iran is not Syria. If Israel wants to survive a few more days, it has to stop this childish game.”

“Iran has the capability to destroy Israel and, given the excuse, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be razed to the ground,” he said, according to Iran’s Fars news agency.

Israel has refused to officially comment on the attack, for which it has been blamed by Iran, Russia, and Syria. Two US officials were also quoted as saying that Israel had carried out the strike, adding that Washington was informed in advance.

Photo released by Iranian media reportedly show the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage Monday. (Iranian media)

The target of the reported airstrike was the Tiyas air base — also known as the T-4 air base — outside Palmyra in central Syria. Israeli TV reports said Iran was building its own air base there, and that a major weapons system of some kind had been destroyed.

Israel had previously carried out at least one explicitly acknowledged attack on the base, which it said was home to an Iranian drone program.

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a stern speech at a state ceremony on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, warned Iran not to test Israel’s resolve, asserting that the Jewish state would respond to Tehran’s “aggression” with “steadfastness.”

“We are preventing Iranian activity in Syria. These are not just words,” Netanyahu said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the official state ceremony held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 11, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Without going into specifics, Netanyahu said that “the events in recent days teach us that standing up to evil and aggression is the mission imposed on every generation.”

“In the Holocaust, we were helpless, defenseless and voiceless,” he said. “In truth, our voice was not heard at all. Today, we have a strong country, a strong army, and our voice is heard among the nations.”

Also on Wednesday, responding to the escalating threats between Israel and Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Netanyahu to avoid any steps that could increase instability in Syria.

Netanyahu, for his part, said Israel would continue to counter Iran’s efforts to build up its military presence in the war-torn country.

The tensions with Iran also come against a backdrop of heightened tensions between Syria, backed by Iran and Russia on the one side and the United States and its European allies on the other.

On Saturday, US, French and British missiles destroyed sites suspected of hosting chemical weapons development and storage facilities Saturday, in a move lauded by US President Donald Trump as “perfectly executed.” It came in response to a suspected toxic gas assault by in the Syrian town of Douma by President Bashar Assad’s forces.

It was the biggest international attack on Assad’s regime since the start of Syria’s seven-year war.

Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report.

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