Israel on high alert for escalation in north
Iron Dome deployed, airspace closed; security cabinet sends reassuring messages to Damascus.
The north went on high alert on Sunday following an air strike against a weapons depot in Syria early Sunday morning that foreign media attributed to Israel, and which generated condemnations from the Arab world.
Though Jerusalem was careful not to claim responsibility for Sunady’s strike or for a similar one on Friday, the Israel Defense Forces deployed Iron Dome batteries near Haifa and Safed, authorities closed the northern skies to civilian air traffic, and pressure on gas mask distribution stations quadrupled compared to normal days.
The targets of both the reported Israeli strikes over the weekend were shipments of Fateh-110 missiles that were en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon. These missiles are said to be extremely accurate, with a range of up to 300 kilometers. Sunday’s attack was at a site at Jamariya, the same target the Israel Air Force reportedly hit in January.
The Syrian cabinet blamed Israel for the attacks, and announced that they “open the door to all options.” The Almiadin television station in Lebanon, which is considered close to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, reported that the Syrian military had deployed missile batteries aimed at Israel.
That report was delivered by the station’s editor-in-chief, Ghassan bin Gado, who quoted “senior sources” though he did not say whether they were Syrian or Lebanese. Gado is also close to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and the fact that Gado himself made the announcement about the missile deployment lends it an air of authenticity.
Despite the escalating tensions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to depart for China as planned on Sunday. That he did so indicates that the intelligence agencies view the chances of either Syria or Hezbollah responding to the reported Israeli air strikes as low.
Residents of Israeli cities near the northern border reported that while people were keeping their ears open, no one was panicking.
“Residents of Kiryat Shmona have been through this a few times,” said Benny Avrahami, a resident of the city. He said that no steps had been taken to raise the level of alert in the city and that normal life continued.
Kiryat Shmona Mayor Nissim Malka said some residents were anxious. “Residents are calling the city hotline to ask, ‘Are they opening the shelters?’ or ‘Will there be school as usual?’ We’re trying to calm everyone who calls and maintain our routine. The IDF is doing its job and we’ll go on with our lives.”
Golan Regional Council Chairman Eli Malka said: “The council understands that we have to prepare, because something is going to happen on the border.”
He stressed, however, that “everything is being done responsibly. There’s no panic or pressure. Normal life continues.”
Netanyahu’s decision to make the trip to China was part of Jerusalem’s effort to send a calming message to Assad. Netanyahu and his advisers concluded that canceling the visit at the last minute would be interpreted by Syria and Hezbollah as a sign of Israeli intentions to escalate the situation.
The prime minister also wanted to avoid sparking a crisis with Beijing, after having already offended the Chinese leadership by canceling another planned visit at the last minute in November 2010.
But Netanyahu did delay his flight for almost three hours to chair a meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet in Jerusalem to discuss the situation in the north.
In a conversation with the reporters accompanying him to China after boarding the plane, Netanyahu declined to comment on the situation in Syria, focusing instead on the importance of the visit to China.
“I know what you want, but I’m barred from talking about it,” he said. “In any case, I never considered canceling my trip to China.”
Despite the official ambiguity on the air strikes, officials in Jerusalem were pleased by the international community’s response. U.S. President Barack Obama stressed that Israel has the right to defend itself, as did British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Russia and China said nothing, while the Arab condemnations − from Egypt, Iran, Syria and Lebanon − were not as vehement as could have been expected.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying “Israeli belligerence is aimed at undermining the security stability in the region.” Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour condemned the lack of response from the international community, saying, “It’s about time the Arab League take a clear stand in the face of repeated Israeli aggression against Arab states.”
Arab League condemns ‘Israeli aggression’
The Arab League, which at its most recent summit came out squarely in favor of the Syrian rebels and against Assad, nonetheless condemned the “Israeli aggression,” saying it constituted a blatant violation of another country’s sovereignty and makes the situation in Syria more complicated.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry filed a complaint with the United Nations Security Council, writing, “The Israeli operation was aggression aimed at strengthening the armed militias and terror groups operating in Syria.”
As part of its effort to calm things down, Israel will continue to maintain official silence about the two air strikes. A senior Israeli official said the goal is to make clear to Assad that Israel’s sole interest is in preventing advanced weaponry from reaching Hezbollah: It isn’t interested in intervening in Syria’s civil war or helping the rebels topple his regime. Jerusalem hopes this will make it easier for Assad to avoid a military response to the strikes.
Netanyahu will return to Israel on Friday. In his absence, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon will serve as acting prime minister. Netanyahu will receive regular updates on the security situation while in China, and also in the air. But if an escalation occurs that would require the diplomatic-security cabinet to convene and make decisions, it would take him many hours to return to Israel.