Hit­ting Iran, Hezbol­lah in Syria, Is­rael says

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— Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu on Sun­day con­firmed that Is­rael has struck hun­dreds of Ira­nian and Hezbol­lah tar­gets in Syria, in­clud­ing a weapons fa­cil­ity in a week­end airstrike, as the mil­i­tary an­nounced the dis­cov­ery of a sixth and fi­nal tun­nel dug by the Le­banese mil­i­tant group for cross-bor­der at­tacks.

The state­ments marked a rare, pub­lic ac­knowl­edge­ment of Is­raeli at­tacks against Hezbol­lah and its pa­tron Iran in neigh­bor­ing Syria, where Is­rael is long be­lieved to have tar­geted Ira­nian weapons ship­ments to the Le­banese Shi­ite group.

How­ever, Is­rael has un­til now gen­er­ally re­frained from com­ment­ing about the strikes for fear of trig­ger­ing a re­ac­tion and be­ing drawn into the deadly fight­ing in neigh­bor­ing Syria’s civil war.

The pub­lic air­ing of se­cu­rity achieve­ments came as the de­part­ing mil­i­tary chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, is end­ing his four-year term and 40-year army ca­reer and as Ne­tanyahu is cam­paign­ing for re-elec­tion un­der a cloud of cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

At his weekly Cab­i­net meet­ing, Ne­tanyahu pub­licly con­firmed the strike as he

thanked Eisenkot for long years of ser­vice and par­tic­u­larly his mar­shal­ing of Is­rael’s shad­owy cam­paign against Iran in re­cent years.

“We have op­er­ated with im­pres­sive suc­cess in thwart­ing Iran from es­tab­lish­ing a mil­i­tary foothold in Syria, in the frame­work of which the mil­i­tary has struck hun­dreds of times against Ira­nian and Hezbol­lah tar­gets,” Ne­tanyahu said. “In the last 36 hours alone, the air force struck stor­age fa­cil­i­ties with Ira­nian weapons at the Da­m­as­cus In­ter­na­tional Air­port. The bulk of re­cent at­tacks show how we are more com­mit­ted than ever to act against Iran in Syria, as we promised.”

Cou­pled with the an­nounce­ment that after Sun­day’s dis­cov­ery, Is­rael was wrap­ping up its op­er­a­tion to de­stroy Hezbol­lah’s tun­nel net­work into Is­rael, the week­end strike in Syria is widely seen as Eisenkot’s “part­ing shot” as his four-year ten­ure as mil­i­tary chief ends. He will be re­placed on Tues­day by Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.

After keep­ing a low pro­file through­out most of his term, Eisenkot gave a se­ries of in­ter­views over the week­end fo­cus­ing on his shift­ing the mil­i­tary’s at­ten­tion to­ward Iran di­rectly, in­stead of just en­gag­ing its lesser prox­ies, Le­banon’s Hezbol­lah and Ha­mas in Gaza. Eisenkot ex­pressed pride in the pol­icy known as the “cam­paign be­tween the wars,” in­clud­ing con­tin­ued ef­forts to curb Ira­nian en­trench­ment in Syria.

In a New York Times in­ter­view pub­lished Fri­day, Eisenkot said that Is­rael “has struck thou­sands of tar­gets with­out claim­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity or ask­ing for credit” as part of his show­down with Qas­sim Suleimani, the com­man­der of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

Eisenkot also re­vealed the gov­ern­ment ap­proved his shift in strat­egy in Jan­uary 2017, step­ping up airstrikes in Syria. In 2018 alone, he said Is­rael’s air force dropped 2,000 bombs in Syria.

The Is­raeli mil­i­tary struck Ha­mas tar­gets in the Gaza Strip on Fri­day and Satur­day night after Pales­tinian protests and at­tempts to breach the bor­der fence, dur­ing which a Pales­tinian woman was killed by Is­raeli sniper fire, and after Gaza mil­i­tants fired a rocket into Is­rael.

Syr­ian state me­dia re­ported early Satur­day that Is­raeli war­planes had launched mis­siles to­ward the out­skirts of Da­m­as­cus shortly be­fore mid­night on Fri­day, caus­ing ma­te­rial dam­age to the am­mu­ni­tion ware­houses at Da­m­as­cus In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

Is­raeli of­fi­cials have ac­knowl­edged car­ry­ing out hun­dreds of strikes against weapons con­voys and Ira­nian tar­gets in Syria, but they have tra­di­tion­ally re­fused to con­firm or deny re­spon­si­bil­ity for spe­cific at­tacks im­me­di­ately after they take place, to avoid push­ing the other side into hav­ing to re­tal­i­ate.

A far more vis­i­ble part of Eisenkot’s legacy has been the re­cent Le­banese bor­der op­er­a­tion, which the mil­i­tary said thwarted Hezbol­lah’s prime strate­gic in­vest­ment for its next po­ten­tial war.

Mil­i­tary spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Con­ri­cus said Sun­day that the fi­nal tun­nel was the largest dis­cov­ered so far, run­ning hun­dreds of yards from un­der a Le­banese home and deep into Is­raeli ter­ri­tory. Is­rael launched “Op­er­a­tion North­ern Shield” early last month to de­tect and de­stroy what it called a vast net­work of Hezbol­lah tun­nels aimed for mil­i­tants to sneak across the bor­der, cap­ture ter­ri­tory and stage dev­as­tat­ing at­tacks.

Con­ri­cus said the lat­est tun­nel orig­i­nated from the Le­banese bor­der town of Ramyeh, was 60 yards deep and ran about 874 yards in­side Le­banese ter­ri­tory and also “dozens” of yards into Is­rael. It in­cluded stairs, a rail sys­tem and a wide pas­sage­way that al­lowed for the move­ment of equip­ment and a large num­ber of forces.

The tun­nel would be de­stroyed in the com­ing days, Con­ri­cus said, adding that while more tun­nels still ex­isted on the Le­banese side of the bor­der, this ef­fec­tively marked the end of the am­bi­tious mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion.

“We have achieved the goal that we set out to

achieve,” he said. “Ac­cord­ing to our in­tel­li­gence, there are no longer any cross-bor­der at­tack tun­nels into Is­rael.”

Is­rael and the United Na­tions say the tun­nels vi­o­late a cease-fire res­o­lu­tion that ended a dev­as­tat­ing war be­tween Is­rael and Hezbol­lah in 2006. Con­ri­cus said the U.N. peace­keep­ing mis­sion was up­dated on the lat­est de­vel­op­ment.

In the wake of the tun­nel dis­cov­er­ies, Is­rael has asked the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to im­pose tough sanc­tions on Hezbol­lah and launch ac­tion against its state-within-as­tate op­er­a­tion in Le­banon. The mil­i­tary said its forces would stay de­ployed along the bor­der to mon­i­tor for any other pos­si­ble un­der­ground ac­tiv­ity, and said it holds the Le­banese gov­ern­ment re­spon­si­ble for ev­ery­thing hap­pen­ing within its ter­ri­tory.

The Shi­ite Hezbol­lah group, which acts in­de­pen­dently in Le­banon, has yet to com­ment on the tun­nels.

Is­rael has long called for a crack­down on the Iran­backed Hezbol­lah, a heav­ily armed mini-army that is be­lieved to pos­sess an arse­nal of some 150,000 rock­ets that can reach nearly all of Is­rael. In re­cent years, Hezbol­lah has been bogged down in fight­ing in Syria on be­half of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s gov­ern­ment. But with that war wind­ing down, Is­raeli se­cu­rity of­fi­cials fear Hezbol­lah is re­fo­cus­ing its at­ten­tion on Is­rael.

Ne­tanyahu’s op­po­nents had ac­cused him of over-dra­ma­tiz­ing the anti-tun­nel op­er­a­tion and of fear­mon­ger­ing to dis­tract the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion after the Is­raeli po­lice rec­om­mended that Ne­tanyahu be in­dicted on bribery, fraud and other charges in a third cor­rup­tion case against him.

Re­gard­ing the dis­clo­sure about the at­tack in Syria, Omer Bar-Lev, a law­maker in the op­po­si­tion La­bor party, wrote on Twit­ter on Sun­day, “It’s a shame and dis­grace that the prime min­is­ter is vi­o­lat­ing the pol­icy of am­bi­gu­ity that was ap­pro­pri­ate for the last three years in the cam­paign be­tween the wars in Syria, for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses.”

Avi Dichter, a law­maker in Ne­tanyahu’s con­ser­va­tive Likud party and a for­mer se­cu­rity chief, dis­missed any po­lit­i­cal mo­tives, say­ing in a ra­dio in­ter­view: “Is­rael has a great in­ter­est in cre­at­ing de­ter­rence. Some de­ter­rence is bet­ter achieved with am­bi­gu­ity, some de­ter­rence is bet­ter achieved with open state­ments.”

In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Aron Heller of The As­so­ci­ated Press; and by Is­abel Ker­sh­ner of The New York Times.

AP/ARIEL SCHALIT

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu holds his weekly Cab­i­net meet­ing Sun­day in Jerusalem, an­nounc­ing strikes on Ira­nian and Hezbol­lah sites in Syria while prais­ing his de­part­ing mil­i­tary chief of staff.

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