IDF tanks are seen along the Golan Heights border with Syria. (photo credit:REUTERS)
By ANNA AHRONHEIM
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman had stern words for Syria after spillover from the Syrian Civil war landed in Israeli territory for the fifth time in one week.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned Israel’s northern neighbors on Sunday not to test the Jewish State’s patience on after numerous errant mortars struck Israel over the past week.
“We have no intention of entering any conflict, but I advise our neighbors not to test us,” Liberman told military journalists during a briefing at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv.
A number of projectiles have landed in Israeli territory due to intensified fighting on the Syrian side of Quneitra as Bashar Assad’s regime fights the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other rebels groups. The offensive was launched by rebels in a bid to take control of the city of al-Baath (new Quneitra), which is one of the few towns in the province that has remained under control of Syrian-government forces.
“We will not tolerate any spillover into our territory,” Liberman said, stressing that the message sent by the IDF in the retaliatory strikes as been “clearly understood” by those across the border.
Although Liberman stated that he did not see any chance for escalation on the border, the smallest incident or miscalculation by either side can lead to conflict, he said, referring to incidents that led to the outbreak both Operation Protective Edge and the Second Lebanon War.
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On Friday, a senior IDF official stated that “the IDF is acting proportionally to prevent any deterioration” and has retaliated against Assad-regime positions after the projectiles struck the Ramat Hagolan area.
Liberman stressed that the rebels “are not our friends,” but said Israel is ready to accept any cease-fire in Syria that does not involve Iran, Hezbollah or Assad.
“We cannot allow a man like Assad, who kills his own citizens and who uses chemical weapons against them to remain in power,” he said. “Keeping Assad in power is not in our security interests. As long as he is in power, Iran and Hezbollah will be in Syria.”
When asked by The Jerusalem Post whether it would be better for Israel if Assad or Syrian rebels to control the border with Israel, he said neither was great option: “The rebels are not our friends, they are all versions of al-Qaida.”
According to Liberman, Israel is in contact with villagers along the Syrian border who understand that Israel, which provides them with medical and humanitarian care, is not their enemy.
“People there have nothing to eat. More than 3,000 Syrians have received medical treatment in Israel, and all of them are local villagers,” he said. “They understand that the best neighbor for them is Israel. I am not hiding it; we have helped in the past and are continuing to help.”
Despite Israel having no interest in entering Syria’s seven-year-old civil war, Liberman said there are red lines Jerusalem has set, including the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah and an Iranian presence on its borders.
“We will not tolerate any Iranian presence on the border, and we will continue to act against that,” he said, adding that Israel will “do what is necessary” following reports that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has established underground arms-production factories for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In March, Kuwait’s Al Jarida newspaper reported that Hezbollah has operated and managed the factories set up by the IRGC in response to alleged Israeli strikes against weapons convoys in Syria. According to the report, the factories can produce missiles with a range of more than 500 kilometers, as well as surface-to-air and antitank missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles that are able to carry explosives.
The report was confirmed on Thursday by the head of Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Herzl Halevi, who said Hezbollah was using Iranian know-how to set up a weapons industry and transfer arms to the country’s South.
“We take everything seriously,” Liberman said. “We are certainly aware of the reports and, we will do what needs to be done. This is a significant phenomenon and we cannot ignore it. Precise weapons such as these missiles are a challenge. Compared to past wars, they will hit deep inside Israeli territory.”
Liberman added, however, that Israel has “increased the gap” with Hezbollah since the Second Lebanon War in 2006. “We know what to do. Neither the missiles nor their factories will rust,” he said.