Is­rael launches mas­sive strike Dozens of Iran-linked tar­gets hit in re­sponse to rocket fire on troops in Golan Heights

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Love­dayMor­ris, Ruth Eglash and Louisa Loveluck

MOUNT BENTAL, GOLAN HEIGHTS

» The Is­raeli mil­i­tary said it had struck dozens of Iran-linked mil­i­tary tar­gets in Syria on Thurs- day in re­sponse to rocket fire, mark­ing a sig­nif­i­cant es­ca­la­tion in re­gional hos­til­i­ties a lit­tle more than a day af­ter theU.S. with­drew fromthe Iran nu­clear deal.

Is­rael said the at­tacks fol­lowed a vol­ley of rock­ets directed at Is­raeli po­si­tions in the Golan Heights, which caused no ca­su­al­ties.

The Is­raeli mil­i­tary blamed the at­tack on Iran’s Quds Force, a spe­cial forces unit af­fil­i­ated with Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps, and said this marked

the first time that Ira­nian forces have fired di­rectly on Is­raeli troops.

Syr­ian and Ira­nian news out­lets ac­cused Is­rael of fir­ing the first shot, say­ing it was Syria that had re­sponded af­ter Is­rael tar­geted the Syr­ian town of Quneitra with ar­tillery fire and mis­siles. There was no of­fi­cial re­sponse from the Ira­nian govern­ment.

The rocket fire was fol­lowed by Is­rael’s largest in­ter­ven­tion in neigh­bor­ing Syria in decades. Jets headed for Syria screamed over north­ern Is­rael for more than four hours, and about 70 pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fied tar­gets were hit, ac­cord­ing to the Is­raeli mil­i­tary.

“This was by far the largest strike we have done, but it was fo­cused on Ira­nian sites,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Con­ri­cus, an Is­raeli mil­i­tary spokesman. Syr­ian anti-air­craft bat­ter­ies were also tar­geted af­ter they fired on Is­raeli planes, he added.

In a state­ment car­ried by Syria’s state news agency, an uniden­ti­fied Syr­ian For­eign Min­istry of­fi­cial de- scribed Is­rael’s overnight at­tacks as a “new phase of ag­gres­sion.”

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a mon­i­tor­ing group based in Bri­tain, said at least 23 peo­ple were killed in Thurs­day’s Is­raeli strikes across Syria. The group said five Syr­ian soldiers and 18 al­lied mili­ti­a­men died, with­out spec­i­fy­ing whether any of the mili­ti­a­men were Ira­nian. The Syr­ian army, how­ever, said only three peo­ple died in the strikes and claimed that­most of the Is­raeli mis­siles were in­ter­cepted.

For res­i­dents of Da­m­as­cus, it was a sleep­less night.

“The in­ten­sity of the blasts and their rep­e­ti­tion was stress­ful,” said one res­i­dent, who de­clined to be named for se­cu­rity rea­sons. He said he was not fear­ful, but many of those close to him were. “They said that a war with Is­rael would be much scarier than a war with other prox­ies,” he said.

While the fight­ing raised con­cerns of fur­ther es­ca­la­tion, it re­mained rel­a­tively con­tained. Rock­ets fired from Syria were aimed only at tar­gets in the oc­cu­pied Golan Heights and not inside Is­rael’s in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized bor­ders. Schools and shops in the area were open as nor­mal on Thurs­day, while some tourists ap­peared un­con­cerned. Nor did the al­ter­ca­tion spread to Le­banon, where Is­rael has fought re­peated bat­tles in re­cent years.

Is­rael and Iran have been on a col­li­sion course in Syria in re­cent months, as Is­rael has vowed not to let Iran build a ex­panded mil­i­tary pres­ence there and has es­ca­lated at­tacks against Ira­nian tar­gets across the bor­der. Iran threat­ened re­tal­i­a­tion af­ter seven of its soldiers were killed by an Is­raeli airstrike in April.

From a view­ing point on Mount Bental on the Golan Heights, Con­ri­cus pointed out where he said an Ira­nian rocket salvo was fired to­ward Is­rael just af­ter mid­night. Four of the 20 rock­ets were on tar­get, he said, but were then in­ter­cepted, while the rest fell short.

“We saw it was very clear what the Ira­ni­ans were do­ing, at­tack­ing Is­rael from Syr­ian soil,” he said.

Is­raeli of­fi­cials have down­played a link be­tween the U. S. with­drawal from the Iran nu­clear deal and the im­me­di­ate es­ca­la­tion in tensions, though Is­raelis on the Golan Heights were or­dered to open their bomb shel­ters at the very mo­ment Trump made his an­nounce­ment.

Be­fore the United States made its de­ci­sion about the nu­clear ac­cord, Iran faced a “strate­gic un­cer­tainty” over what would hap­pen and did not want to take the risk of strik­ing back, said Michael Horowitz, a se­nior an­a­lyst at Le Beck In­ter­na­tional, a Mid­dle East-based geopo­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity con­sul­tancy. “That en­cour­aged Tehran to be care­ful.”

Is­rael, mean­while, was look­ing for a chance to press its ef­forts at rolling back the Ira­nian pres­ence in Syria, he said. “Is­rael was search­ing for an op­por­tu­nity to re­ally es­ca­late its ef­forts.”

In Wash­ing­ton, White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders con­demned Iran’s “provoca­tive rocket at­tacks from Syria against Is­raeli cit­i­zens” and sup­ported Is­rael’s “right to act in self- de­fense.”

“The Ira­nian regime’s de­ploy­ment into Syria of of­fen­sive rocket and mis­sile sys­tems aimed at Is­rael is an un­ac­cept­able and highly danger­ous de­vel­op­ment for the en­tire Mid­dle East,” San­ders said in a state­ment. “Iran’s Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps (IRGC) bears full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the con­se­quences of its reck­less ac­tions.”

The state­ment called on Iran and its prox­ies “to take no fur­ther provoca­tive steps.”

AFP PHOTO/ HAND­OUT/ CENTRALWAR ME­DIA

An im­age re­leased on Thurs­day by the gov­ern­mentaffil­i­ated “Cen­tral War Me­dia” in Syria pur­port­edly shows Syr­ian air de­fense sys­tems in­ter­cept­ing Is­raeli mis­siles over Da­m­as­cus’ airspace.

AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANAMENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Is­raeli Merkava tanks are seen in a de­ploy­ment area near the Syr­ian bor­der in the Is­rae­lan­nexed Golan Heights on Thurs­d­day. Is­rael’s army said it had car­ried out wide­spread raids against Ira­nian tar­gets in Syria overnight.

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