JERUSALEM (WASHINGTON POST) - Syria launched antiaircraft missiles Friday (March 17) at Israeli jets returning home from a bombing run over central Syria, marking a serious escalation between the two Middle East foes.
In a rare communique, in which Israel took responsibility for the usually clandestine airstrikes, the Israeli Air Force confirmed that its warplanes had struck several targets in neighbouring Syria.
Israeli military spokesmen said its jets had returned to Israel-controlled airspace over the occupied Jordan Valley, when the Syrian army fired antiaircraft missiles.
Israel then responded to the incoming Syrian rockets by deploying its own anti-air missiles. At least one of the Syrian missiles was intercepted by Israel’s cutting-edge “Arrow” antimissile system, Israeli media reported.
The Arrow is designed to knock down incoming ballistic missiles and was developed with financial and technical assistance from the United States.
Israeli news media reported that this was the first time that the Arrow system had been deployed to respond to a real threat.
The sounds of two distinct booms could be heard in Jerusalem soon after the arrival of the Syrian projectiles. The incoming missiles also set off warning sirens in the Jordan Valley, home to the ancient city of Jericho as well Palestinian farming villages and Jewish settlements.
Over the past five years, Israeli jets have from time-to-time struck what Israeli military analysts describe as weapons caches and convoys of arms being transferred from Syrian stockpiles to the Lebanon-based Shiite militia Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy fighting alongside troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Israel fears that as the Syrian civil war possibly winds down, Hezbollah could receive a windfall in sophisticated arms from Assad and Iran. Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war along the Israel-Lebanon border in 2006 and both sides say they are prepared for another.
Israel also occupies two-thirds of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israel war. Israeli officials say they will never return the territory to Syria.
Israel reported no injuries or damage to its pilots or aircraft. The Israeli army did not reveal the target of its overnight airstrikes.
Israel’s Channel 10 said the mission was to destroy a weapons convoy destined for Hezbollah.
Syria’s military and media said the Israelis hit sites in central Syria near Palmyra and claimed that its antiaircraft batteries had down an Israeli jet.
“Our air defence engaged them and shot down one warplane over occupied territory, hit another one, and forced the rest to flee,” the Syrian army said in a statement reported by state news agency SANA. Israeli military spokesmen said the claim was false.