Analysis

With Israel on Alert for Jerusalem Day, Syrian Rocket Fire May Not Be Coincidental

Defense officials aren't sure exactly who is to blame, but the usual explanation of errant fire has clearly become irrelevant

Israeli police officers take positions during clashes with Palestinians by the Dome of the Rock Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's old city, June 2, 2019.
Mahmoud Illean,AP

 The proximity between the dates of Jerusalem Day, celebrated in Israel on Sunday, and Jerusalem (or al-Quds) Day, marked in the Shi’ite world on Friday, is one reason for the relatively tense security situation in recent days. In Jerusalem there were several violent incidents and a tense atmosphere during the celebrations.

There were also two rockets fired at Israel Saturday from across the Syrian border in what was another event connected to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Iran.

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The Israeli defense establishment is still having a hard time determining exactly who fired Saturday night’s rockets, one of which landed in the Hermon region. The usual explanation for these incidents – errant fire during exchanges between the forces of President Bashar Assad and the rebels – has not been relevant for a year now.

The Assad regime has seized total control of southern Syria and there is no significant force there challenging him. The Syrian army has returned to the Syrian Golan Heights, in the format reminiscent of the deployment of its brigades on the eve of the civil war and it has reasonable control over what goes on there.

The rocket fire, therefore, looks like a deliberate move connected to the regime. But the force behind it could be the Syrian army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, or one of the Shi’ite militias that Iran operates in southern Syria.

The possible reasons for the rockets are varied: to mark the Shi’ite Al Quds Day, which this year has seen numerous threats issued to Israel by Iran and Hezbollah; another veiled threat by Iran against the tension with the United States in the Gulf; or Syrian revenge for a series of recent incidents.

Over the past few months, apparently due to Russian dissatisfaction, among other things, Israel has reduced the scope of its airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

At the same time, the Syrian air defenses are primed, edgy, and seeking every opportunity to shoot down planes that approach Syrian air space. In last week’s incident, in the Quneitra region in the Syrian Golan, the IDF destroyed a Syrian launcher after it fired antiaircraft shells at its planes. Syria reported an officer and soldier killed in the attack.

If Saturday’s fire was meant to avenge that previous incident, it failed. A few hours afterward the IDF attacked a series of regime targets in southern Syria.

Syria opposition organizations reported afterward that 10 people were killed in the Israeli bombardment, among them Iranian fighters. It could be that there were casualties in the airstrike but the number looks inflated.

Israel held the Assad regime responsible for the incident and didn’t make any specific claims against Iran. These incidents make it clear that despite Assad’s renewed control over the territory, the border area is not completely stable. But the friction between the two militaries is not as intensive as it was a year ago, not least because Iran is being more careful than in the past, but the underlying tension remains.

With Jerusalem Day and the month of Ramadan adding to the tension, several violent incidents took place in Jerusalem. On Friday a Palestinian terrorist stabbed two Israeli civilians in the Old City and a Palestinian teenager was shot to death by border policemen south of the city, apparently when he tried to breach the separation barrier to pray on the Temple Mount.

On Sunday police clashed with Palestinian demonstrators who barricaded themselves in the mosques, after they threw objects in an effort to disrupt visits by Jews to the Temple Mount.

In the evening the annual flag march by religious-Zionist youth was scheduled to take place; the march has in recent years seen sharp confrontations between the marchers and local Palestinians and was being heavily guarded by police.

The increasing tension in East Jerusalem contrasts with the relative quiet along the Gaza border. Some 7,000 people attended the weekend demonstrations along the border fence, but it was clear that Hamas was closely supervising it in order to prevent direct confrontations with IDF soldiers. The reason for this is clear: Hamas is waiting for some $30 million in additional aid from Qatar that is apparently due next week, and at this stage it has an interest in keeping things quiet.

But this calm is temporary and unstable, and very much depends on how the Palestinians read the political situation in Israel. If Hamas thinks the Israeli government may be more easily blackmailed after the decision to hold new elections in September, it may rekindle the violence along the border at an even higher intensity.