Israel and Iran trade fire in most direct confrontation yet

TEL AVIV, Israel — In the most direct confrontation between Israel and Iran to date, the two regional enemies exchanged fire for hours during a volatile night in the Golan Heights.

The extended barrage of fire comes amid soaring tensions between Israel and Iran, two rivals battling for regional influence, and less than two days after the United States withdrew from the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel said more than 20 rockets were launched by Iranian forces in Syria towards Israeli-claimed territory late Wednesday, often criss-crossing across the clear night skies. A number of those rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defense system, resulting in bright and sudden explosions.

Iran’s leaders have not yet issued a response to the Israeli accusations or the military strikes, but if confirmed it would be the first time Iranian forces have fired rockets directly at Israeli forces.

An Israeli artillery unit takes position near the Syrian border in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on May 9, 2018.

Israel retaliated with what appeared to be surface-to-surface missiles, and Syrian anti-aircraft batteries hosed the sky with fire in an effort to intercept them. Thunderclaps of Israeli artillery fire reverberated across the frontier between Syria and Israel, with the faint sound of impact echoing back moments later.

All night, drones buzzed overhead, heard but not seen in the darkness.

In a statement delivered shortly after midnight Thursday, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces pinned the blame for the rocket fire on the Quds Force, an elite division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which has forces in Syria and is often seen as the face of Iran’s regional ambitions.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the rockets, which were targeted at front-line Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights, were all either downed by aerial defense systems or fell short and landed in Syria.

Conricus said Israel responded by successfully hitting dozens of Iranian targets in Syria in what he described as “the largest operation against Iranian targets” in years.

“Israel has hit almost all of Iran’s infrastructure in Syria,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Thursday morning. “If it will rain in Israel, there will be a biblical flood on the other side.”

On Wednesday night, state-run Sana TV, in southern Syria, carried reports that Israel had fired several missiles at the city of Baath in Quneitra, none of which resulted in casualties.

A short time later, Syrian state-run media reported that while dozens of “hostile” Israeli missiles had been intercepted in Syrian airspace, at least two others had hit an ammunition depot and destroyed a radar site.

The targets included rocket launchers, intelligence posts, military command posts, and weapons depots. No Israeli fighter jets were hit in the strikes, but Conricus said they came under heavy anti-aircraft fire. He added that “ground assets were also used to strike into Syria.”

High alert

Israel had been expecting an Iranian response for some time, following a series of military strikes in Syria that targeted Iranian positions. Syria and Iran blamed those strikes on Israel, and Iran’s leaders vowed revenge.

The most recent strike occurred Tuesday night, only hours after President Donald Trump had withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, sparking fears of further destabilization in the Middle East.

A US defense official told CNN that it was an Israeli military strike that hit suspected Iranian weapons near Damascus. Israel has not commented on the strike.

On Tuesday, the IDF went on high alert in anticipation of an Iranian response, in addition to calling up a limited number of reserve troops “on an as needed basis.” Israel opened bomb shelters in the Golan Heights, but did not instruct people to enter the shelters.

On Wednesday morning, the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, visited the Golan Heights to meet with military and civilian leaders on the IDF’s assessment of the situation.

Earlier Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Victory Day, which marks the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany.

In a bilateral meeting after the celebrations, Netanyahu said that Israel has the “obligation and right to defend itself against Iranian aggression, from Syrian territory. They are trying to transfer forces and deadly weapons there with the explicit goal of attacking the State of Israel. Certainly, it is Israel’s right to take such steps as necessary to defend itself against this aggression.”

Putin, as one of the few leaders who has good relations and significant influence with both Israel and Iran, urged restraint.

“The situation, unfortunately, is very acute. I want to hope that we will be able not only to discuss with you, but also to look for solutions that would soften the situation,” said Putin.

Russia and Israel coordinate their actions within Syria for the purpose of deconfliction. According to Conricus, Israel notified Russia before carrying out the overnight strikes.

Israel has often reiterated one of its red lines that it will not allow Iran to establish a military presence in Syria.

As dawn broke Thursday morning, the sounds of conflict had dissipated, though it remained unclear whether these two sworn enemies would continue fighting, or if the tit-for-tat had ended.

Israel insisted it did not want to escalate the situation and encouraged its citizens to continue their daily routine.

The Golan Heights is considered Israeli-occupied territory, taken from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel officially annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 in a move never recognized by the international community.

United Nations Security Council Resolutions have demanded the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, but Israeli leaders have made it clear they have no intention of conceding the strategic position to Syria.