Intelligence Minister Israel Katz on Sunday said Israeli strikes on key Iranian sites in Syria over the weekend sent a clear message to the Islamic Republic that Jerusalem won’t tolerate an Iranian military foothold on its doorstep.
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.”
Katz, who is also a member of the high-level security cabinet, 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.
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 says it destroyed the Syrian military’s main command and control bunker in its most devastating assault there in decades.
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.”
The wave of airstrikes came after Israel intercepted an Iranian drone that had infiltrated its airspace, and an Israeli F-16 was downed upon its return from Syria on Saturday. It was Israel’s most serious engagement in neighboring Syria since fighting there began in 2011 — and the most devastating air assault on the country in decades.
The military said it destroyed the drone’s Iranian launching site along with four additional Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites, including the Syrian military’s main command and control bunker.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said Sunday that at least six Syrian troops and allied militiamen were killed in the airstrikes. The six included Syrian troops as well as Syrian and non-Syrian allied troops, the Britain-based monitor said.
In Saturday’s attacks, the Israeli jets came under heavy Syrian anti-aircraft fire and the pilots of one of the F-16s had to eject. The plane crashed in northern Israel. One pilot was seriously wounded and the other one lightly.
Israel would not confirm whether its aircraft was actually shot down by enemy fire, which would mark the first such instance for Israel since 1982 during the first Lebanon war. However, an initial investigation indicated the plane was targeted by anti-aircraft missiles, one of which exploded adjacent to the plane, compelling the crew to eject.
Israel has recently issued several stern warnings about the increased Iranian involvement 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.”