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Israel's shadow war with Iran escalates in Syria with attacks, drone interception

Israel has reportedly carried out seven raids over the past month and nine since the beginning of the year inside Syria. Israel on Sunday intercepted a drone coming from Syria.
JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images

JERUSALEM — Israel's low-intensity conflict with Iran and its proxies in Syria escalated last week. Israel was suspected of carrying out three aerial attacks on Iranian targets inside Syria within four days, and on Sunday, the Israeli army downed object coming from Syria through its northern border. 

Ynet reported Monday that the drone downed on Israel’s northern border was intercepted electronically, not by a missile or an unmanned aerial vehicle. The drone had penetrated Israeli territory from Syria, apparently in response to increased aerial attacks recently attributed to Israel. The IDF is now analyzing the remnants of the drone to determine if it was manufactured in Iran.

The incident is only the latest in series of escalation for Israel and Syria. The Syrian government media counted seven Israeli raids over the past month and nine since the beginning of the year.

According to reports in Syria, the most recent Israeli attack targeted a military airport used by the Iranian-allied Hezbollah organization to conduct weapons training and testing in the central Syrian region of Homs. Five Syrians were said to be injured. On Friday, an alleged Israeli airstrike on a Damascus suburb hit a weapons depot reportedly used by Iran, killing two Iranian military advisers, according to Syrian and Iranian state news outlets.

Israel does not officially comment on its activities in Syria, but the targeting of the Hezbollah compound on Sunday suggests the attack was linked to a March 13 bomb explosion in north-central Israel that injured an Israeli driver. Israel says the explosives were planted by a militant who infiltrated its territory from Lebanon and made his way to the Megiddo junction. The militant was located and killed by special forces as he headed back to the Lebanese border. Israel refrained from pointing a finger directly at Hezbollah, settling for a general statement that Hezbollah's involvement was being "examined."

The unusual attack from Lebanon and the relative ease with which the perpetrator crossed the border fence and entered the Israeli heartland has raised tensions in northern Israel and prompted a series of security consultations.

Israel sought to respond to the attack without being dragged into a broad escalation with Hezbollah. A direct Israeli attack on the Shiite group in Lebanon would probably trigger retaliation and an unwanted confrontation. Israel's apparent decision to attack Hezbollah and Iranian targets on Syrian soil seems to have served this purpose, exacting a heavy price for the attack but not setting off a direct clash. 

The drone dispatched into Israel may also be linked to Iranian threats to avenge the killings of two advisers in Syria. Over the weekend, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) originally said one of its officers — Milad Heidari — was killed in Friday’s attack. On Sunday, the IRGC said another officer — Capt. Meqdad Mahqani Jafarabadi — was killed in the attack. Jafarabadi was serving as a military adviser in Syria, according to the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency. 

The flying object entering Israeli airspace follows Iran vowing to avenge the deaths of the IRGC officers. After the news of the death of Jafarabadi, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said "the blood of these noble martyrs will not be wasted” in a statement. 

Although the drone was intercepted and did not cause damage, Israel is unlikely to ignore it. According to Israeli security sources, the drone amid Iran's continued entrenchment in Syria is a sign of growing self-confidence on the part of Tehran as it observes the internal rift in Israel over a proposed government judicial overhaul. Iran, according to these sources, appears to see the domestic divisions affecting the military as an opportunity to challenge Israel, and may also be emboldened by tensions in Israeli-American relations over the judicial blitz.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected this assumption. “The internal argument in Israel doesn’t harm and won’t harm our determination or intensity or our capabilities to act against our enemies,” he said on Sunday. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, visiting troops later in the day, added, “We will not allow the Iranians and Hezbollah to harm us.”

Gallant’s standing, however, is unclear and is also a source of tensions within the military and other security agencies that are already on heightened alert over Palestinian attacks on Israelis in the West Bank and unrest at east Jerusalem’s holy sites as Muslims mark the month of Ramadan. Ten days ago, Netanyahu announced that he was firing Gallant over his public statement urging a halt to the legislative overhaul, but he has yet to deliver an official letter of termination, likely due to concern for the likely fallout. Negotiations have been reportedly underway on the wording of an apology for Gallant to remain in office.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi noted in a special letter to his troops that he would not allow any political or social developments to undermine the mission of the military.

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