Gantz: 'We will back any responsible act by the government'

‘You aren’t immune’: Defense minister threatens Iran leaders after Syria strikes

‘Wherever you send your octopus tentacles, we will hack them off,’ Bennett warns, after Quds Force targets hit overnight; ex-intel chief slams ‘unnecessary’ bellicose rhetoric

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen with Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 30, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen with then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 30, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)

Israeli leaders on Wednesday morning issued fresh threats to Iran after the military conducted overnight airstrikes on the Islamic Republic’s Quds Force in Syria, with the defense minister saying even Tehran’s leaders were “not immune.”

In the predawn hours, the Israeli Air Force launched a large reprisal airstrike operation, targeting dozens of Iranian and Syrian military sites in Syria in response to a rocket attack on northern Israel the day before.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said that at least 11 people were killed, including seven “foreigners” who were likely Iranian, and that others were injured during the overnight strikes.

“The rules have changed: Whoever fires at Israel during the day will not sleep at night. That was the case last week and it is the case this week,” said newly installed Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, also referring to last week’s targeted killing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror chief Baha Abu al-Ata in his home in Gaza, which sparked a two-day conflagration.

“Our message to the leaders of Iran is simple: You are not immune anymore. Wherever you send your octopus tentacles, we will hack them off,” Bennett added.

A senior defense official told reporters Israel believes it killed and injured a number of Iranians in the strike. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, reiterated the image of an octopus as a metaphor for Iran’s actions in Syria, as well as the implicit threat to attack Iranian leaders.

“Iran is an octopus with its head in Tehran that sends its tentacles to wrap around us. We have not yet threatened Tehran, but we are beginning to get close to the head of the octopus. We struck a building staffed by Iranians at the Damascus airport. We assess that there are Iranians killed and injured,” the official said.

The official said that Israel destroyed six Syrian air defense batteries, as well as multiple buildings on Syrian military bases that are controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force.

However, the bellicose remarks by the defense minister met harsh criticism from the former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin, who called them unnecessary and dangerous.

“The comments about killing Iranians and the direct threat to Iranian leadership are unnecessary rhetoric with no strategic benefit. Actions are important; words and chatter can lead to a gratuitous escalation. Silence is a prerequisite for wisdom,” Yadlin wrote in a tweet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the strike: “I have made clear that anyone who attacks us, we will attack them. That is what we did tonight toward military targets of the Iranian Quds Force and Syrian military targets in Syria.”

Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz speaks at the ADL’s Israel Social Cohesion conference in Airport City near Tel Aviv on November 5, 2019. (Avshalom Shoshoni/Flash90)

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, the current prime minister-designate and a former IDF chief of staff, said: “The Israel Defense Forces exacted a toll tonight from the Iranian cancerous cells in Syria. We must preserve and strengthen our deterrence on all fronts. Even during an unstable political period [in Israel] we will back any responsible act by the government that strengthens the security of Israel’s citizens.”

The IDF said it was girding for several possible Iranian responses, from total calm to a full-scale attack.

“We are preparing for defense and attack, and we will respond to any attempt to retaliate,” IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told reporters Wednesday morning.

“We are ready for three scenarios: no response, a minor response, and a more significant response,” he said.

Save for minor air defense reinforcements, there were no significant changes to the IDF’s deployments in northern Israel on Wednesday morning. The IDF Home Front Command also did not put in place any safety restrictions on residents of the north.

Video footage from Syria appeared to show a Syrian air defense missile crashing to the ground in a heavily populated area shortly after launching, which could account for the casualties.

“The attack was carried out in response to the launching of the rockets by the Iranian Quds Force from Syrian territory,” the army said in a statement.

Israel has repeatedly said that it will not accept Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and that it will retaliate for any attack on the Jewish state from Syria.

Zilberman said the military targeted both “the host, Syria, and the guest, Iran.”

A large explosion is seen over the Damascus skyline in footage purportedly taken on the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, November 20, 2019 (video screenshot)

Israel has repeatedly warned Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to not intervene during IDF strikes on Iranian targets in his country or else his military will also be targeted, as was the case Wednesday.

The Syrian targets of the strike included modern air defense systems, which were put into operation in the past 10 years, as well as command centers and weapons caches, the IDF spokesman said.

The IAF did not target Syria’s Russian-made advanced S-300 anti-aircraft batteries due to the presence of Russian troops in their vicinity. It was not clear whether S-300s had fired on the Israeli aircraft.

The IAF bombed an Iranian command center at the Damascus International Airport and logistics sites used by Iran to transport weapons through the country, the military said.

The IDF said it coordinated its aerial campaign with Moscow through the deconfliction mechanism the two countries established in light of Russia’s significant military presence in Syria.

Zilberman said the targets of its strikes were all located within 80 kilometers of Israel’s border and were focused around Damascus and the Syrian Golan Heights.

Footage circulated on social media and Syrian state television showed nighttime explosions along the Damascus skyline and apparent Syrian attempts to intercept the incoming Israeli missiles.

The Quds Force is a part of the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards Corps responsible for extraterritorial operations, and is a key actor in Syria — both against rebels and in Tehran’s efforts to entrench itself along Israel’s border and threaten the Jewish state from there.

Early Tuesday morning Israel’s anti-missile defense system intercepted four rockets fired from Syria toward the Golan Heights.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. (YouTube screenshot)

Shortly afterwards blasts were heard near Damascus International Airport, the official SANA news agency reported. The agency gave no further details, but its statement came shortly after the Israeli army announced that it had intercepted the rockets fired from Syria.

Some Syrian outlets speculated that the blasts were an Israeli airstrike, while others said it may have been the sound of the rockets being launched at Israel.

The rockets triggered sirens in the northern Golan Heights and Galilee region at 4:52 a.m., sending residents rushing to bomb shelters.

Last week Syrian state media reported that an Israeli strike hit the home of a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist in Damascus, Akram al-Ajouri, killing his son and another person. Islamic Jihad accused Israel of being behind the strike in Damascus. The Israeli army refused to comment.

On the same day, an Israeli airstrike killed Islamic Jihad military commander Baha Abu Al-Ata, whom Israel blamed for recent rocket fire into its territory, in a strike on his home in Gaza City. Around 450 rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the military operation against Abu Al-Ata, according to the Israeli army, as the military struck back at Islamic Jihad targets. A ceasefire between Israel and Islamic Jihad was reached after 50 hours of clashes, but the deal remains precarious.

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets over the last several years, but does not generally comment on specific attacks. Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel’s northern neighbor, and supports Hezbollah and Gaza terrorists.

AFP contributed to this report.

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