Israel strikes dozens of Iranian targets in Syria after getting rocket fire
Most intensive Israeli action in neighbouring Syria since the civil war broke out there in 2011
The Israeli military on Thursday said it attacked nearly all of Iran's military installations in neighbouring Syria in response to an Iranian rocket barrage on Israeli positions in the occupied Golan Heights.
Israel said the targets of the strikes included weapons storage, logistics sites and intelligence centres used by elite Iranian forces in Syria. It also said it destroyed several Syrian air-defence systems after coming under heavy fire. It said none of its warplanes was hit.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned in a statement on Thursday that "whoever attacks us — we will attack them sevenfold and whoever prepares to attack us — we will act against them first."
Netanyahu issued the statement as Israel's security cabinet was meeting, according to media reports.
Targets of the strikes, its largest in Syria since the 1973 war, included weapons storage, logistics sites and intelligence centres used by elite Iranian forces in Syria.
Israel has acknowledged carrying out over 100 airstrikes in neighbouring Syria since the civil war began in 2011, most believed to be aimed at suspected Iranian weapons shipments bound for the Hezbollah militant group.
But in the past few weeks, Israel has shifted to a more direct and public confrontation with Iran, striking at Iranian bases, weapons depots and rocket launchers across Syria, and killing Iranian troops. Israel accuses Tehran of seeking to establish a foothold on its doorstep. Iran has vowed to retaliate.
Reflecting the scope of the overnight attacks, Russia's military said 28 Israeli jets were involved, striking at several Iranian and government sites in Syria with 70 missiles. It said half of the missiles were shot down.
Analysis: Serious escalation between old foes
By Derek Stoffel, CBC News
Iran's view of Israel is that the Jewish State should not exist and that the country should be destroyed. There have been decades of threats between the two nations, but the events of the last 24 hours mark a serious escalation.
Israel says the 20 rockets aimed the Golan Heights signal the first time Iran has directly targeted Israelis, rather than letting their proxies, such as the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, do the fighting.
Israel's military is on its highest alert in the north. Trucks loaded with tanks and artillery guns zoomed up the winding highways leading into the Golan Heights all day as the Israelis dig in for more possible strikes by Iran's Revolutionary Guard based in Syria.
But after striking dozens of Iranian positions in Syria on Thursday, and in previous attacks on Iranian bases in recent months, it's clear Israel's military is taking advantage of its state-of-the-art intelligence units to try to stay a step ahead of Iran.
Speaking at the Herzliya Conference, an annual security gathering north of Tel Aviv, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel would respond fiercely to any further Iranian actions.
"We will not let Iran turn Syria into a forward base against Israel. This is the policy, a very, very clear policy, and we're acting according to this policy," he said. "We, of course, struck almost all the Iranian infrastructure in Syria, and they need to remember this arrogance of theirs. If we get rain, they'll get a flood. I hope that we ended this chapter and that everyone understood."
Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, meeting in Aachen, Germany, on Thursday, called for de-escalation in the Middle East.
"We know that we face an extremely complicated situation here," said Merkel. "The escalation of the last few hours shows it is truly a matter of war and peace, and I can only call on all involved to exercise restraint."
Germany's chancellor, like Macron, supports the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that U.S. President Donald Trump's signalled this week he would withdraw from, a decision generally supported by Israel.
At least 23 killed: war monitor
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the civil war through sources inside Syria, said the overnight Israeli attacks struck several military posts for Syrian troops and Iranian-backed militias near the capital of Damascus in central Syria and southern Syria. The observatory said the attacks killed 23 fighters, including five Syrian soldiers. It said it was not immediately clear if Iranians were among those killed.
Iranian state television broke its silence over the Israeli airstrikes late Thursday morning, the start of the Iranian weekend. A presenter announced the Israeli strikes, sourcing the information to Syria's state-run SANA news agency. The broadcaster also described the Israeli attack as "unprecedented" since the 1967 Mideast war.
SANA claimed only three people were killed.
Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 war and annexed it in 1981, in a move not recognized internationally. In 1974, Israel and Syria reached a ceasefire and a disengagement deal that froze the conflict lines with the plateau in Israeli hands.
Damascus shook with sounds of explosions just before dawn, and firing by Syrian air defences over the city was heard for more than five hours. SANA said Israeli missiles hit air defence positions, radar stations and a weapons warehouse, but claimed most incoming rockets were intercepted.
Russia sent forces to Syria to back President Bashar al-Assad in 2015. But Israel and Russia have maintained close communications to prevent their air forces from coming into conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to Moscow on Wednesday to meet with President Vladimir Putin and discuss military co-ordination in Syria.
On Thursday, the Kremlin called on Israel and Iran to ease tensions through diplomatic means, spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Rockets fired in Golan Heights
Earlier Thursday, Israel said Iran's Al Quds force fired 20 rockets at Israeli front-line military positions in the Golan Heights. Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesperson, said four of the rockets were intercepted, while the others fell short of their targets. The incoming attack set off air raid sirens in Golan.
Conricus said Israel was not looking to escalate the situation but that troops will continue to be on "very high alert."
"Should there be another Iranian attack, we will be prepared for it."
It is believed to be the first time in decades that such firepower from Syria has been directed at Israeli forces in the Golan Heights.
The White House on Thursday deemed those attacks "provocative" and said it supported Israel's right to self-defence.
Iran's ability to hit back could be limited. Its resources in Syria pale in comparison to the high-tech Israeli military. Iran also could be wary of military entanglement at a time when it is trying to salvage the international nuclear deal.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard targeted
Iran has sent thousands of troops to back Assad, and Israel fears that as the fighting nears an end, Iran and tens of thousands of Shia militiamen will turn their focus to Israel.
Late Tuesday, Syrian state media said Israel struck a military outpost near the capital of Damascus. The observatory said the missiles targeted depots and rocket launchers that likely belonged to Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, killing at least 15 people, eight of them Iranians.
Last month, an attack on Syria's T4 air base in Homs province killed seven Iranian military personnel. On April 30, Israel was said to have struck government outposts in northern Syria, killing more than a dozen pro-government fighters, many of them Iranians.
Israel considers Iran to be its most bitter enemy, citing Iran's hostile rhetoric, support for anti-Israel militant groups and development of long-range missiles.
Israel and Iran have appeared to be on a collision course for months.
In February, Israel shot down what it said was an armed Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace. Israel responded by attacking anti-aircraft positions in Syria, but an Israeli warplane was shot down during the battle.
But Thursday was the first time Israel openly acknowledged targeting Iran.
With files from Reuters