Liberman vows ‘strong response’ if Syrian military enters Golan DMZ

Liberman vows ‘strong response’ if Syrian military enters Golan DMZ

As Syria regime marches toward border area, defense chief says Israel will push for ‘every tiny detail’ of 1974 disengagement agreement to be upheld

Israeli soldiers at an army base in the Golan Heights look out across the border with Syria on July 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)
Israeli soldiers at an army base in the Golan Heights look out across the border with Syria on July 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman threatened Syria Monday with a “strong response” should it violate a delicate decades-old ceasefire agreement on the Golan Heights as it looks to reclaim pockets of rebel-held territory.

Pro-regime Syrian forces have advanced toward the Israeli border in recent weeks, and Israel has called for the 1974 separation of forces agreement between Israel and Syria to be upheld and the demilitarized buffer zone on the border respected.

“We’ll respect the disengagement agreement from ’74 and insist on every tiny detail,” said Liberman at the start of his Yisrael Beytenu party’s weekly faction meeting. “Any violations will be met with a harsh response from the State of Israel.”

Liberman also reiterated that Israel would not allow Iran to use Syria as a beachhead from which to launch attacks on Israeli territory. “Nothing has changed and nothing is new,” he said.

The warning came hours after Israeli planes reportedly bombed an air base in central Syria used by Iranian militia fighters in the latest confrontation between the countries.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party in the Knesset, June 18, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Friday, the Israeli military attacked a Syrian position after a mortar shell exploded in the buffer zone between the two countries, in what the military said was a violation of the 1974 agreement that ended the Yom Kippur War.

The military said the mortar shell was fired during ongoing battles between Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s forces and opposition groups in the area. The army would not say if it believed the shelling from Syria was intentionally directed at the buffer zone or if it was a stray shot from nearby fighting.

The Israel Defense Forces said it would continue to hold Assad’s regime responsible for upholding the 1974 ceasefire agreement between the two countries.

“The IDF is not involved in the internal fighting in Syria. At the same time, it will continue to demand the implementation of the ceasefire agreements from 1974, including the preservation of the buffer zone,” the army said.

Under the armistice, a demilitarized zone was established between Israel and Syria.

The area’s status as a demilitarized zone has made it a de facto safe haven for residents of southern Syria. As a result, tens of thousands of Syrians began fleeing toward this buffer zone to escape a renewed offensive by Assad’s forces, with help from Russia and Iran-backed Shiite militias.

A picture taken on July 4, 2018, from the Golan Heights shows displaced Syrians from the province of Daraa staging a protest (top L) calling for international protection, in the Syrian village of al-Rafid, near the border fence with Israel. (AFP/Jalaa Marey)

Bombing raids by the Russian and Syrian air forces starting last week, along with a ground offensive, have resulted in dozens of deaths and the displacement of more than 300,000 Syrians, according to UN assessments.

The tens of thousands of displaced Syrians who have made their way toward the Israeli Golan Heights have settled in overflowing, under-resourced tent cities near the border. In some cases, the displaced person camps are located a few hundred meters from the security fence, clearly visible from Israel.

IDF officials have said they do not expect masses of Syrians to attempt to breach the security fence in search of refuge. Syrians in the area have called for both Israel and Jordan to open their borders or to establish safe zones where they can remain without fear of bombings by Syria or Russia.

Israel, which has technically been at war with Syria since 1948, has offered humanitarian assistance to residents of the country’s southwest in the past two weeks, including taking in dozens of injured Syrians for medical treatment, but has repeatedly stated that it will not allow refugees to cross the border.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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