Israel shelled parts of Syria over the weekend, claiming it was in response to rockets being fired at Golan Heights from the neighbouring country.
“An IDF UAV is currently striking the launchers in Syria from which rockets were launched into Israeli territory earlier tonight,” the Israel Defense Forces tweeted on April 9. Before that on Saturday (April 8), three rockets had been launched towards Israel from Syria, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
The BBC reported that the al-Quds Brigade — a Damascus-based Palestinian militant group loyal to the Syrian regime — claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks, saying they were launched in retaliation for the recent raids at the al-Aqsa mosque by the Israeli police.
Why are Israel and Syria in conflict, and why are tensions boiling over recently?
Months of tensions
With an ultra-nationalist government coming to power in Israel, the region has been simmering for months. As the Muslim holy month of Ramzan coincided with the Jewish holiday of Passover and the Christian Easter, things have been on edge. Amid all this, the Israeli police on April 5 raided Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, considered the third holiest site in Islam. This served as the immediate trigger for a wave of rocket attacks, including from Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and Syria.
Before that, in March, an armed man had entered Israel allegedly from Lebanon and blown up a car. While the man was killed by Israeli soldiers, the infiltration raised the alarm level in the country.
In Syria, Israel’s actions come out of the fear that arch rival Iran is using the long-running war in the country to station its fighters and weapons close to Israel’s borders. Israel is also locked in a conflict with the Hezbollah, which holds sway in another neighbour, Lebanon.
Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, was quoted as saying by AP last week, “We will not allow the Iranians and Hezbollah to harm us. We have not allowed it in the past, we won’t allow it now, or anytime in the future. When necessary, we will push them out of Syria to where they belong – and that is Iran.”
According to an AP report, “Strikes attributed to Israel in Syria in recent weeks have targeted both Iranian-linked figures and infrastructure. They have hit the airports of Damascus and Aleppo, a move which was apparently intended to prevent the flow of arms shipments into Syria, but which also disrupted aid shipments after the deadly Feb. 6 earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey.”
While Israel and Syria have had a bilateral conflict, things worsened after the launch of the Syria war in 2011, with multiple countries and competing interests entering the fray. Iran, which denies Israel’s right to exist, emerged as a major player, supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Thus, for more than 10 years, Iran’s weapons, money, and fighters have poured into Syria, its Eastern neighbour. Rockets sometimes land in Israel as “errant fire”, as the various combatants in Syria fight each other.
Before this, Israel and Syria fought the Six-Day War in 1967, in which Israel seized Golan Heights, which it has occupied since then. The fertile plateau of Golan Heights overlooks both Israel and Syria, offering a commanding military vantage. Syrian forces made an abortive bid to recapture Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The 1974 ceasefire agreement, however, left most of the area in Israeli hands.
In 1981, Israel passed the Golan Heights Law, which extended Israel’s “laws, jurisdiction and administration” to the area, in effect annexing it. A UNSC resolution declaring the imposition of Israel’s law “in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights… null and void and without international legal effect” has not changed the situation on the ground, although the frontier has not seen major hostilities for more than 40 years. In 2000, Israel and Syria made a failed attempt at negotiating a settlement.
In recent years, Israel has been accused of carrying out targeted strikes in Syria, though it doesn’t acknowledge them. The recent spate of attacks has raised fears of an escalation, keeping the region on the boil.