Rockets from Syria heighten tension in Israel

Israeli aircraft struck Syrian government artillery positions early Wednesday as tensions mounted along the Israeli-held Golan Heights a week and a half after an Israeli airstrike killed an Iranian general and six members of the militant group Hezbollah.

Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the early morning airstrikes were in response to the firing from Syria of at least two rockets that struck the Golan Heights on Tuesday. The rockets landed in open areas and caused no damage, but Israeli forces have been on high alert for retaliation since the deaths of the Iranian and Hezbollah members.

“The IDF holds the Syrian government accountable for all attacks emanating from its territory and will operate by any means necessary to defend Israeli civilians,” Lerner said. “Such blatant breaches of Israeli sovereignty will not be tolerated.”

The airstrikes were the second Israeli response to the rockets. Lerner had said earlier that Israel had reacted to the rockets “with artillery towards the positions that launched the attack” and ordered the evacuation of Israel’s Mount Hermon ski resort on the Golan Heights. Israeli media said a Syrian position was shelled.

Lerner said that in contrast to previous incidents, in which errant fire from Syria’s civil war has hit the Golan, the rockets launched Tuesday appeared to have been fired deliberately.

Warning sirens sounded in Israeli communities in the area and residents were ordered into bomb shelters. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed the territory.

Iran and Hezbollah, a Lebanese guerrilla group backed by Tehran, promised a response to the Israeli attack Jan. 18 on a Hezbollah convoy on the Syrian side of the Golan frontier. The strike killed Iranian Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, along with a senior Hezbollah commander and Jihad Mughniyah, the son of Hezbollah’s former military chief, Imad Mughniyah, who was assassinated in 2008.

Israeli commentators said the strike was a signal that Israel wouldn’t tolerate attempts to create a base for attacks on its forces along the Golan frontier and that Tuesday’s rocket fire appeared to be an initial response by Hezbollah.

“I don’t think it will end with that, and it’s likely there will be a more aggressive response while trying to avoid a full-scale war,” said Omer Einav, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Iran said Tuesday that it had warned Israel to expect retaliation in a message conveyed through U.S. officials. “We told the Americans that the leaders of the Zionist regime should await the consequences of their act,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, according to the official IRNA news agency.

Israel has reinforced troops along the frontiers with Lebanon and Syria and stationed an Iron Dome missile defense battery in the area.