Israeli defense officials are refraining to the extent that they can from commenting on the attack in Syria carried out by the United States, Britain and France early Saturday, but they are preparing to address the consequences of the strike and its significance for the military’s operational policies in the region.
Army officials understand that the choice of targets was carefully made for their connection to the presence of chemical weapons in Syria rather than in an effort to strike at the regime of President Bashar Assad himself or attempts by Iran to establish a presence in the country.
The assessment of defense officials is that Israel has been left on its own when it comes to the Iranian presence in Syria, and there is concern that the Russian, Iranian and Syrian response to Saturday’s attack will primarily result in a change in the Israeli army’s freedom of action in the region.
Even before the strike, the expectation among Israeli army officials was that an American strike on Syria would not prompt military retaliation against Israel. The major concern has been that the Russian and Iranian response would be a change in their military approach in the region, making it more difficult for Israel to operate relatively freely in the airspace over Lebanon and Syria. This would occur if Russia decides to provide Syria with advanced missiles in response to the attack by Western powers, or permit the deployment of advanced anti-aircraft that would even threaten Israel Air Force planes flying over Lebanon.
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The Israeli army was aware of plans for the attack before it was carried out and the military was on alert in the north but refrained from issuing civil defense instructions to the public. The army has tried to strike a balance between preparedness in the event of a deterioration of the situation and conveying a sense of ordinary routine to the public.
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Army officials make a distinction between the attack by the Western countries, which was thought unlikely to prompt a response against Israel, and an earlier attack on the T-4 base in Syria that killed senior Iranian air force personnel who were involved in an Iranian drone project in Syria, and which reports have attributed to Israel.
In this instance, the Israel Defense Forces is still on high alert on the Lebanese and Syrian borders as a result of concern over an Iranian response through Hezbollah or militias in Syria.
When it comes to the situation on the Gaza border, after a third weekend of demonstrations along the border fence, the army has seen a steady decline in the size of the protests, with about 10,000 Gazans showing up last Friday. IDF officials expect the decline to continue until Prisoner Day in May, when Hamas is expected to try to mount a protest involving 100,000 demonstrators spread out among five points along the Israeli border. Palestinians in the West Bank are also expected to demonstrate then, increasing the prospect of violent clashes with the army.