Israel bombs targets in southern Syria amid tensions

Israeli soldiers work on tanks in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights near the border with Syria, not far from Lebanon border, Tuesday, July 28, 2020. Lebanon's prime minister has accused Israel of provoking a "dangerous escalation" along the border in an attempt to modify the mandate of a U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
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Israeli fighter jets and attack helicopters struck military targets in southern Syria belonging to the Syrian army Monday night, hours after thwarting an infiltration attempt from Syria by suspected militants trying to plant explosives, the Israeli military said.

In a rare statement acknowledging strikes in neighboring Syria, the army said the targets included “observation posts and intelligence collection systems, anti-aircraft artillery facilities and command and control systems” in Syrian army bases.

Syria acknowledged the strikes, saying that Israeli helicopters fired missiles at Syrian army outposts and reported unspecified “material damage.”

The incident comes amid heightened tension on Israel’s northern frontier following a recent Israeli airstrike that killed a Hezbollah fighter in Syria and anticipation that the militant Lebanese group would retaliate.

Earlier Monday, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said Israeli troops spotted “irregular” activity in the Golan Heights. Israeli troops opened fire on the suspected militants, some of whom were armed, after observing them placing the explosives on the ground, Conricus said.

There was no official confirmation that the four suspected attackers were killed but a grainy video released by the army shows four figures walking away from barbed wire marking the frontier. The four then disappear in a large explosion that engulfs the area.

The Israeli military has not said if the four are suspected of ties to Iran or Hezbollah, two Syrian allies. However, Conricus said Israel held the Syrian government responsible for the incident.

Addressing Likud party lawmakers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that Israel “thwarted an attempted sabotage on the Syrian front” and would continue to “harm all those who try to harm us and all those who harm us.”

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and later annexed the territory. The U.S. is the only country to have recognized Israel’s annexation.

Tensions have been high on Israel’s northern frontier following the Israeli airstrike that killed the Hezbollah fighter in Syria last month. Following the airstrike, the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights was hit by explosives fired from Syria and Israel responded by attacking Syrian military positions and beefing up its forces in the area.

Israel has been bracing for further retaliation and last week it said it thwarted an infiltration attempt from Lebanon by Hezbollah militants, setting off one of the heaviest exchanges of fire along the volatile Israel-Lebanon frontier since a 2006 war between the bitter enemies.

Israel considers Hezbollah to be its toughest and most immediate threat. Since battling Israel to a stalemate during a monthlong war in 2006, Hezbollah has gained more battlefield experience fighting alongside the Syrian government in that country’s bloody civil war.

After 40 years of calm, the Israel-Syrian frontier has heated up in recent years as Iran has tried to establish a military foothold on Israel’s doorstep while helping Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s yearslong war. Hezbollah also has aided Assad.