A senior Israeli minister told a Saudi-linked news outlet that Israel would “teach Iran a lesson it will never forget” if Tehran launches an attack, and that Syrians could end up paying the price as well.
The strongly worded threat from intelligence minister Israel Katz, published late Sunday, came a day after cross-border violence flared in northern Israel and southern Syria following weeks of warnings from Jerusalem that it would not tolerate what it said were Iranian plans to establish a foothold on Israel’s northern border for eventual use in attacks against the Jewish state.
“If Iran continues to threaten and carry out offensive operations against Israel from Syria, Israel will teach Iran a lesson that it will never forget,” Katz told the London-based Arabic-language outlet Elaph.
The site, run by Saudi publisher Othman Al Omeir, has become a go-to news outlet for Israeli officials seeking to speak to the Arab world, and has run interviews with several high-ranking figures, including IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot.
According to numerous media reports, Omeir, who was once the editor-in-chief of the premier Saudi news outlet, As-Sharq al-Awsat, is very close to Saudi King Salman, and the interviews have come to be regarded as a sign of Jerusalem and Riyadh’s growing cooperation in opposing Iran.
Many analysts regarded Saturday’s violence as the first open confrontation between Israel and Iran after decades of battling through proxy groups and secret operations under the radar.
After shooting down an Iranian drone that infiltrated its airspace, Israel launched a widespread retaliatory offensive on Saturday in Syria. The IDF said it hit four Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites, causing significant damage.
Israel also said it destroyed the Syrian military’s main command and control bunker in its most devastating assault there in decades. A number of anti-aircraft batteries were also targeted after an Israeli F-16 crashed, apparently after being shot down.
Katz, a member of the high-level security cabinet, said Iran was “breaking red lines” and “playing with fire,” by endangering not just its own soldiers, but Syria’s as well.
“The Syrian army will find itself under fire if it continues to cooperate and allow Iran to position itself on Syrian soil,” Katz said.
He added that Iran’s presence in Syria, as well as its plans to build advanced missiles in Lebanon or transfer weapons to the Hezbollah terror group were “red lines” that Israel would defend against, though the country is not interest in violence continuing to escalate.
Earlier on Sunday, Katz told Army Radio it would take the Iranians time to “digest” the Israeli airstrikes.
“They, and we, know what we hit and it will take them some time to digest, understand, and ask how Israel knew how to hit those sites,” he said. “These were concealed sites and we have intelligence agencies and the ability to know everything that is going on there and yesterday we proved that.”
Sunday saw the border area mostly return to calm after the day of hostilities, though Israeli officials continued to make clear they would not hesitate to deploy forces again.
Katz, who is also transportation minister, told the radio station that Israel was doing everything possible to avoid an escalation of violence along its northern borders.
“If Israel would have proactively struck at the targets that were hit yesterday, regardless of the UAV, the ground would have shook,” he said.
Also Sunday, fellow security cabinet member and Education Minister Naftali Bennett reiterated stern Israeli warnings against the increased Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
“We won’t show restraint when our sovereignty is violated. We insist on our right to act wherever when we need to protect ourselves,” he told Army Radio.
Bennett said the retaliatory strikes were “a small example of what we know how to do.”
Israel has recently issued several stern warnings about the increased Iranian presence along its borders with Syria and Lebanon, which it attributes to Iran’s growing confidence following Syrian President Bashar Assad’s successes in the Syrian civil war, thanks to support by main allies Russia and Iran.
Israel fears Iran could use Syrian territory to stage attacks or create a land corridor from Iran to Lebanon that could allow it to transfer weapons more easily to the Lebanese Hezbollah — an Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist group sworn to Israel’s destruction. Hezbollah’s fighters are also fighting on Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war.
Though Israel has largely stayed out of the Syrian conflict, it has reportedly struck weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah dozens of times since 2012.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held several consultations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backs Assad’s government and maintains a large military presence in Syria. Following the Israeli strikes they spoke again on Saturday, with Netanyahu conveying Israel’s determination to counter Iran’s intentions.
Still, Russia’s foreign ministry appeared to criticize Israel’s actions by calling for restraint and respecting Syria’s sovereignty.
“It is absolutely unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian servicemen who are in Syria at the invitation of its legitimate government,” it said.
The United States, on the other hand, strongly backed Israel.
“Iran’s calculated escalation of threat and its ambition to project its power and dominance places all the people of the region — from Yemen to Lebanon — at risk,” said Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman. “The US continues to push back on the totality of Iran’s malign activities in the region and calls for an end to Iranian behavior that threatens peace and stability.”
Agencies contributed to this report