Israel has destroyed a Syrian armoured vehicle in retaliation after a mortar shell landed on its territory in the first direct confrontation between the countries since the Syrian uprising broke out.
The response by Israel yesterday, the second in two days, increased fears it could be drawn into the civil war raging next door.
Israel has steadfastly tried to avoid getting sucked into the Syrian conflict, but has grown increasingly worried after a series of stray mortar shells have struck territory in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
Israeli military had believed the mortar fire was spilling over from intense fighting near the frontier between Syrian president Bashar Assad’s army and rebel forces trying to oust him rather than being an overt attempt to hit the Jewish state.
However Israel was yesterday starting to question that assessment. “We thought it was spillover, but today we’re not sure,” said one senior military official.
Israeli officials have long feared that the embattled Assad might try to draw Israel into the fighting in an act of desperation.
In a statement, the military said Israeli tanks targeted the “source of fire” in Syria after the mortar shell landed in an open area of the Golan Heights. It confirmed “direct hits” on the targets.
Israeli military officials said an armoured vehicle carrying “Syrian mobile artillery” was hit.
Mortar shells have landed in the Golan over the past week, and early this month Syrian tanks accidentally crossed into a buffer zone along the frontier of the Golan for the first time in nearly 40 years. Israel captured the Golan, a strategic plateau, from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and subsequently annexed it.
After weeks of standing still, Israel responded for the first time on Sunday, firing what it called a “warning shot” into Syria after another mortar shell strayed across the frontier and landed near an Israeli military post. Israel also warned of a tougher response if the attacks persisted.
While Israel appeared eager to calm the situation, its response was a potent reminder of how easily the Syrian civil war - already spilling across borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – could explode into a wider regional conflagration.
Israel has little love for Assad, who has provided refuge and support to its bitterest enemies through the years. But the Syrian leader – and his father before him – have kept the frontier quiet for nearly four decades, providing a rare source of stability in the volatile region.
Open hostilities between Israel and Syria could have wide-ranging consequences, dragging in Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrilla group and perhaps Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip on Israel’s southern flank.
The Israeli military said it has filed a complaint through United Nations forces operating in the area, stating that “fire emanating from Syria into Israel will not be tolerated and shall be responded to with severity”.
Defence minister Ehud Barak said Israeli forces had been instructed “to prevent the battles from spilling over into our territory”.
“Additional shelling into Israel from Syria will elicit a tougher response; exacting a higher price from Syria,” he said.
The violence in Syria has killed more than 36,000 people since an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began in March 2011.
Hundreds of thousands have fled the fighting into neighbouring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Another 11,000 escaped into Turkey on Friday with more leaving over the weekend following the surge of fighting in and around the border town of Ras al-Ayn.
A Syrian jet yesterday bombed the rebel-held frontier area, killing at least six people.
Syrian army forces backed by helicopter gunships and artillery had attacked the border area on Sunday, with activists warning the region was “under siege”.