TEL HAZEKA, Golan Heights – Israeli tanks struck a Syrian artillery launcher Monday after a stray mortar shell flew into Israel-held territory, the first direct clash between the neighbors since the Syrian uprising began nearly two years ago.
The confrontation fueled new fears that the Syrian civil war could drag Israel into the violence, a scenario with grave consequences for the region. The fighting has already spilled into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
“We are closely monitoring what is happening and will respond appropriately. We will not allow our borders to be violated or our citizens to be fired upon,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday in a speech to foreign ambassadors.
While officials believe President Bashar Assad has no interest in picking a fight with Israel, they fear the embattled Syrian leader may try to draw Israel into the fighting in a bout of desperation. Israeli officials believe it is only a matter of time before Syrian rebels topple the longtime leader.
On Monday, a Syrian fighter jet bombed a rebel-held area hugging the border with Turkey three times, killing 15 to 20 people, according to a Turkish official. Separately, eight wounded Syrians died in Turkey, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
Potential Israeli involvement in Syria could be far more explosive. The bitter enemies both possess air forces, tanks and significant arsenals of missiles and other weapons.
Although the Israeli military is more modern and powerful, Syria has a collection of chemical weapons that could wreak havoc if deployed. Fighting between the countries could also drag in Syria’s close ally, the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, or Islamic militant groups in the Gaza Strip on Israel’s southern flank.
Israeli political scientist Dore Gold, an informal adviser to Netanyahu, said neither Israel nor Syria has any interest in escalating the fighting.
“I see no indication of Assad wanting to draw Israel in. But if violence comes from the Syrian army, or even forces operating in Syria that are affiliated with al-Qaida, Israel has to do what is necessary to make sure there’s no spillover into Israeli territory,” he said.