US military chief visits Israel to talk regional threats, amid tensions in north

Gen. Mark Milley meets with defense minister, IDF chief and Mossad head, speaks with Netanyahu via video, receives intel briefings

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley (right) meets with Defense Minister Benny Gantz at Nevatim Air Base, July 24, 2020 (IDF)
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley (right) meets with Defense Minister Benny Gantz at Nevatim Air Base, July 24, 2020 (IDF)

The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, made an unannounced visit to Israel on Friday, meeting with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, IDF chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi and Mossad director Yossi Cohen, along with other top brass.

The visit came at a time of heightened tensions with Iran and its allies across the Middle East, and television commentators speculated on the possible significance of the visit, particularly regarding the threat posed by Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

The Israel Defense Forces has raised its alert level along the northern border, concerned of a potential attack by the Hezbollah terror group after it accused Israel of killing one of its fighters in an airstrike outside Damascus on Monday night.

Milley, visiting the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel, also spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu via video conference.

A statement from the military said Milley discussed Iran and regional security challenges with his Israeli colleagues and received an intel briefing from Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate.

Gantz, in a statement, said he emphasized “the need to continue the pressure on Iran and its proxies that threaten regional and global stability.” And he warned Israel’s enemies not “to test” Israel.

“We have no interest in escalation, but we will do all that is necessary to protect Israeli citizens, by all means and under all conditions,” he said.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley (left) meets with IDF chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi at Nevatim Air Base, July 24, 2020 (IDF)

Tensions along the northern border were further heightened after a blast along the border Friday morning sent shrapnel into an Israeli Druze town.

“In light of a situational assessment in the IDF and in accordance with the Northern Command’s defense plan, the IDF’s deployment will change in both the military and civilian arena with the goal of strengthening defenses along the northern border,” the army said in a statement.

In the past, Hezbollah has vowed to retaliate to losses of its soldiers in Syria with attacks on Israel. This was the case in September, when the terror group fired three anti-tank guided missiles at Israeli military targets along the Lebanese border, narrowly missing an IDF armored ambulance with five soldiers inside, after the IDF killed two of its fighters in Syria the month before.

In a tacit threat, the IDF preemptively warned Beirut that it sees the state of Lebanon as “responsible for all actions emanating from Lebanon.”

Earlier on Friday, explosions were also heard along the Syrian border, with shrapnel striking a home and a car on the Israeli side in the nearby Druze town of Majdal Shams, causing light damage. It was not immediately clear what caused the blasts, though the leading assessments were that they were the results of either anti-aircraft fire toward an IDF observation balloon or an artillery shell fired from Syria toward Israel.

As a result of these growing tensions, the IDF Northern Command, Military Intelligence and the Israeli Air Force have been on high alert in recent days.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley via video conference, July 24, 2020 (IDF)

Beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday night, roadblocks were installed along a number of highways to prevent military vehicles vulnerable to attack from anti-tank guided missiles fired from either Lebanon or Syria, from driving on certain roads.

Entrances to some communities where the military maintains a presence that are exposed to attack were also blocked for IDF vehicles. As the military assessed that Hezbollah planned to attack only IDF targets, civilian vehicles will be able to travel freely throughout the area.

However, the IDF said that some farmers who have fields directly along the border may be blocked from working their lands.

The military also cleared some troops out of positions directly along the border, moving them deeper into Israel, so that they would not represent a clear target for Hezbollah, while still allowing them to defend the frontier.

The IDF has also stepped up its intelligence collection efforts along the border in recent days. Throughout the day on Friday, Lebanese media reported on large numbers of Israeli drones flying overhead.

On Tuesday evening, Hezbollah accused Israel of killing one of its members — Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad — in an airstrike south of Damascus on Monday night, raising the possibility of retaliation against the Jewish state.

Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad, a member of the Hezbollah terror group, whom the organization says was killed in an Israeli airstrike on July 20, 2020. (Hezbollah media)

On Thursday, sources “familiar with [Hezbollah’s] views” told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the terror group was abiding by that same “equation that [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah set last year” of retaliating when one of its fighters is killed in Syria.

This was a reference to a speech made by Nasrallah after the deaths of two members in August 2019. “If Israel kills any of our members in Syria, we’ll respond from Lebanon and not in the Shebaa Farms, and we tell the Israeli army on the border to be very cautious and to wait for us,” Nasrallah at the time.

The airstrike attributed to Israel on Monday night hit weapons depots and military positions belonging to Syrian regime forces and Iran-backed militia fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The group said the aerial bombardments caused several explosions around the town of Kiswah, an area that has long been associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Reuters news service reported that the assault hit targets in the towns of Jabal al Mane, Muqaylabiya and Zakiya, causing “huge blasts” and allegedly killing Iranian personnel.

Reuters quoted a Syrian analyst with sources on the ground named Zaid al Reys as saying that the target of the attack was a “major ammunition depot.”

Israel has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011. It has targeted government troops, allied Iranian forces and fighters from the Lebanese Shiite terror group Hezbollah.

It rarely confirms details of its operations in Syria, but says Iran’s presence in support of President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah is a threat and that it will continue its strikes.

Judah Ari Gross and AP contributed to this report.

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