In a rare acknowledgment, the IDF stated on Sunday night that it struck Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror targets in Syria in response to the barrage of rocket strikes on Israel from the PIJ group in the Gaza Strip.
“IDF fighter jets struck terror sites belonging to the PIJ terror group south of Damascus in Syria, as well as dozens of PIJ sites throughout the Gaza Strip,”
Islamic Jihad said in a statement that the airstrikes on Damascus killed two of its members, identifying them as Salim Salim, 24, and Ziad Mansour, 23. It did not disclose their nationalities or elaborate on their roles. It vowed to respond to the deaths of its members.
Media reports on Monday morning said that the death toll from the Israeli strikes in Syria rose to six from the two reported on Sunday night.
תמונת 2 מחבלי הג'יהאד האסלאמי שנהרגו בהפצצה הישראלית באזור דמשק:סלים אחמד סלים בן 24 וזיאד מנצור בן 23.
אולם ארגון זכויות אדם סורי מוסר כי בתקיפה נהרגו 6 בני אדם. pic.twitter.com/ixtQxTQfOe
— יוני בן מנחם yoni ben menachem (@yonibmen) February 24, 2020
Israel’s attack on Syrian targets triggered anti-aircraft fire from the country’s air defenses that shook Damascus.
דמשק: הפעלת נמ סורי נגד מטוסי חיל האוויר הישראלי לטענתם התוקפים באזור דמשק במקביל לתקיפת מטרות גאפ בעזה https://t.co/DhnriXXtLc
— Or Heller אור הלר (@OrHeller) February 23, 2020
A Syrian military statement reported an Israeli attack near Damascus International Airport and said its air defenses confronted Israeli rockets coming from the direction of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. It said the defenders intercepted or shot down most of them.
Israel said its warplanes attacked targets of the Palestinian militant Islamic Jihad group south of Damascus in addition to sites in the Gaza Strip. It said the sites attacked were used for “research and development of armaments” that are manufactured in Syria and the Gaza Strip. It said the sites also produce dozens of kilograms of rocket fuel each month.
The military said the attacks “were carried out in response to the attempted attack this morning on the security fence (in Gaza) and the launching of rockets from the Gaza Strip at Israel.”
Residents said multiple explosions shook Damascus for about 15 minutes as air defenses fired back.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian conflict, said the explosions resulted from Israeli bombing of suspected Iranian-backed militias in the vicinity of Damascus International Airport.
Israel frequently strikes at targets inside Syria, but has largely refrained from public admissions of its covert military operations there.
Iran is an ally of Damascus and has offered military advisers and sent militiamen and material support to help President Bashar Assad’s government forces in the nine-year civil war.
Israel considers Iran a national security threat and says it won’t tolerate Iran’s presence on its borders.
In November, Israel targeted two senior Islamic Jihad commanders in a simultaneous attack, killing one in the Gaza Strip and missing the second in Syria. At the time, Israeli warplanes fired three missiles at the home of Akram al-Ajouri, a member of Islamic Jihad’s leadership living in exile. He was not harmed, but his son and granddaughter were killed.
Israel and the Islamic Jihad group engaged in a heavy round of fighting last November after the Israeli military killed a top Islamic Jihad commander.
Since then, Israel and Gaza’s more powerful Hamas group have been working through Egyptian mediators to cement an informal cease-fire. But Islamic Jihad has continued to try to carry out attacks.
Islamic Jihad said the man killed along the border was a militant. Israel said the man was planting explosives along the border fence. Amateur video on Palestinian social media showed an Israeli bulldozer crossing into Gaza and then lifting up his body.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, accused the Israeli military of abusing the dead body, saying that it “bears the consequences of the ugly crime.”
The military said it was removing the body in a way that prevented further danger to those around.
But the images generated widespread anger in Gaza, where it was seen as a provocation and violation of Islamic principles that call for respect for the dead.
It also sparked criticism of Hamas on social media, with people accusing the group of appearing weak and allowing Israel to operate with impunity inside Gaza’s territory. One image on social media showed a picture of Jesus draped with a Palestinian flag hanging off the front of a bulldozer.
Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett rejected the criticism, noting that Hamas has been holding the bodies of two Israeli soldiers since they were killed in the 2014 Gaza war.
“I back the military, which killed the terrorists and collected the body,” he said. “That’s what should be done and that is what was done.”
The incident comes amid a relative lull along the security fence separating Israel from Gaza. Last week, Israel announced it would provide hundreds of additional work permits for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in a new step aimed at solidifying an informal cease-fire with the Hamas.
(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem & AP)