UNITED NATIONS — Syria on Friday claimed it targeted an Israeli vehicle because it crossed a ceasefire line into its territory earlier this week, and was heading toward a village with a large rebel presence.
Israel has said the IDF jeep did not enter Syrian territory, and was attacked without provocation.
In a letter to the UN Security Council circulated Friday, Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said his country exercised its right to self-defense and would respond immediately to any other violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Syria accused Israel of violating the UN Charter and the separation of forces agreement that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War when it sent the vehicle into Syrian territory and launched two missiles on Tuesday. He said Syria expects the Security Council “to put an end to Israel’s violations.”
Israel said an Israeli jeep came under fire during an overnight patrol on its side of the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed.
Syria claimed it destroyed the vehicle “and everything in it,” but Israel said that the jeep was hit by light weapons fire, causing slight damage to the vehicle, and that the army responded by shooting a long-range Tamuz rocket at the source of the attack, reporting a “direct hit.”
The IDF further stated that it regarded the recent incidents along the northern border with Syria with concern, and lodged a complaint with UNDOF, the peacekeeping force monitoring the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria.
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said Tuesday night there was no doubt whatsoever that the routine IDF patrol was inside Israeli territory, and no doubt either that it was deliberately fired upon by Assad’s forces — “from a clearly marked Syrian position… not once, not twice, but three times.” Israel, he said, “cannot allow the Golan Heights area to become a comfortable space for [President Bashar] Assad to operate from. If he causes [the situation on] the Golan Heights to deteriorate, he will have to bear the consequences.”
Since the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011, there has been growing concern of spillover across the tense border with Israel. The incident Tuesday was the latest in which gunfire and mortar shells have struck the Israeli side of the Golan in recent months. Israel believes that most of the fire has been incidental spillover from the Syrian conflict, but that several cases, including Tuesday’s, were intentional.
In his letter, Ja’afari said that at 1:10 a.m. on May 21, “an Israeli vehicle crossed the cease-fire line and proceeded towards the village of Bi’r Ajam, which is located in the liberated area of the Golan within the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.”
“The presence of armed terrorist groups in that village led the Syrian armed forces to target the above-mentioned Israeli vehicle,” he said.
Syria refers to opposition fighters as “terrorists.”
Ja’afari reiterated Syria’s claim that Israel is interfering in Syria’s internal affairs “through its provision of logistical support for armed terrorist groups in Syria, including those that are active in the area of separation of forces.”
Israel’s air force chief, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, warned Wednesday that tensions with Syria could escalate into a “surprise war” and that Israel needs to be ready. He said Russian S-300 air defense systems are “on their way” to Syria, though Israel asked Russia not to supply the advanced air defense system to Syria.
During a visit to the Atlit naval base Tuesday, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that Israel’s policy on Syria is clear, “We do not interfere in the civil war, but we will not allow it to enter our territory.”
In the past three months, there have been 12 cross-border shootings toward the Golan Heights. Tuesday’s incident, however, marked the first time that the Syrian army acknowledged firing at Israeli troops across the frontier, and appeared to be an attempt by Assad’s regime to project toughness following three Israeli airstrikes near Damascus this year.
The strikes, which targeted alleged Iranian arms shipments bound for the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group via Syria, marked a sharp escalation of Israel’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. They also raised fears that a conflict that has repeatedly spilled over Syria’s borders could turn into a full-fledged regional war.
Syria vowed to retaliate and Assad said Syria is “capable of facing Israel” and would not accept violations of its sovereignty. Firing at an Israeli target seems to be in line with the tougher rhetoric that followed the airstrikes.