10 May 2018 – 21:42

 Israel hits Iranian positions in Syria after missile barrage

Merkava Mark IV tanks are deployed next to cows near the Syrian border in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights on May 10, 2018. AFP / Menahem Kahana

By David Wainer & Zaid Sabah I Bloomberg

Israel conducted its biggest raid inside Syria in at least 30 years, saying Iranian forces there fired a barrage of missiles at the Israeli-held section of the Golan Heights.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran had “crossed a red line” in launching the attack and warned against any escalation of the conflict. Oil prices rose while Israel’s currency and stock markets gained. No Israeli injuries or damage was reported.

“Whoever hurts us, we will strike at him sevenfold,” Netanyahu said in a video clip recorded after a meeting of his security cabinet concluded at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. “Whoever prepares to hurt us, we will act to strike him first”

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A showdown had seemed inevitable between the two Middle East powers. Israel has been warning against Iran’s growing influence in Syria, and Iran had vowed to retaliate for deadly suspected Israeli airstrikes last month on Iranian positions there. Tensions have been rising in the region since President Donald Trump decided two days ago to quit the Iranian nuclear agreement and impose broad sanctions.

Israel said it attacked overnight after Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guards that’s backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, targeted Israeli army positions with 20 rockets. None of the rockets reached Israeli-held territory, with most falling short and several intercepted, it said.

The claim of an Iranian attack “is a lie,” said Mohammad Javad Jamali Nobandegani, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security & Foreign Policy Commission, according to the legislature’s website.

Iran, which often acts through proxies in Syria, similarly denied an Israeli claim in February that Tehran sent an armed drone from Syria into Israeli territory, where it was shot down. Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said Thursday that Iran had been trying to orchestrate an attack for a month, but Israel thwarted its attempts.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman sought to calm concerns that the major escalation along a highly volatile frontier was the opening salvo in a wider war. “I hope we have finished this chapter,” Liberman said at a policy conference north of Tel Aviv in Herzliya. “We have no desire to escalate.”

Israel notified the U.S. and Russia before the overnight strike, Conricus said. Russia is the major power broker in Syria, where its military intervention turned the tide in favor of government forces, and Israel coordinates military action there with Moscow.

While Israel has repeatedly clashed with Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, it was the first time Israel had directly accused Iran of firing toward Israeli-held territory. It was also a rare acknowledgement of an Israeli assault.

Liberman said his country struck most of Iran’s military facilities in Syria. He called on Sunni Arab Gulf states, which have drawn closer to Israel in recent years over a shared enmity toward Iran, to “come out of the closet” and establish with Israel an “axis of moderate states” in the Middle East.

In a rare public gesture by an Arab government, Bahrain expressed its support for the Israeli air raids.

“It is the right of any country in the region, among them Israel, to defend itself and destroy the sources of danger,” Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said in a Twitter post.

No Foothold

Frictions between Iran and Israel have escalated in recent months as the war in Syria winds down and parties to the conflict consolidate gains. Iran is institutionalizing its military presence there, to the distress of Israel, which has vowed to block the establishment of a permanent Iranian foothold.

Israel said it attacked Iranian intelligence facilities and logistics compounds, a military base and other posts, as well as munition storage warehouses of the Quds forces at Damascus international airport. It also attacked Syrian anti-aircraft batteries after they entered the fray.

Interfax reported that Syria, which uses Russian-made aerial defenses, intercepted about half of the Israeli missiles. Israel used 28 warplanes and fired about 60 missiles in its latest airstrike in Syria, it reported, citing the Russian Defense Ministry. In addition, Israel launched more than 10 surface-to-surface tactical missiles on Syria, it said. The Israeli military had no comment.

The Syrian army said the strikes killed three people, destroyed a radar station and weapons depot, and damaged a number of air force battalion sites. It said it intercepted most of the Israeli missiles.

Oil Gains

Although Israeli officials broadcast the message that daily life would not be disrupted by the tensions — schools were open and farms on the Golan were being tended — oil in New York extended gains. It moved above $71 a barrel on speculation that “the conflict between Iran and Israel could eventually threaten supply across the Middle East,” Takayuki Nogami, chief economist at state-backed Japan Oil, Gas & Metals National Corp., said by phone from Tokyo.

Israeli officials have expressed disappointment that neither the U.S. nor Russia has committed to prevent the Iranian military from striking root permanently in Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, on a visit to Moscow on Wednesday, told President Vladimir Putin that Iran is bent on destroying his country, and appealed for Russian help to keep Tehran from using Syria as a launch pad.
–With assistance from Pratish Narayanan , Dana Khraiche , Tony Czuczka , Gregory Viscusi , Jonathan Ferziger and Kevin Costelloe .
To contact the reporters on this story: David Wainer in Tel Aviv at dwainer3@bloomberg.net, Zaid Sabah in Washington at zalhamid@bloomberg.net.