Syria accuses Israel of assassinating official near Golan Heights

File photo of Quneitra, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Syria in 2019. Midhat Saleh was responsible for overseeing the strategic Golan Heights boundary.
File photo of Quneitra, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Syria in 2019. Midhat Saleh was responsible for overseeing the strategic Golan Heights boundary.PHOTO: REUTERS

DAMASCUS (NYTIMES) - The Syrian government has accused Israel of assassinating a high-ranking Syrian official who spent 12 years in an Israeli prison on terrorism charges before serving decades in the Syrian government.

The official, Midhat Saleh, who was responsible for overseeing the strategic Golan Heights boundary, was shot and killed by an apparent sniper while inside Syria near the shared border between the two countries.

In a statement on Saturday (Oct 16) announcing Saleh's death, Syria's Presidency of the Council of Ministers said the official was "targeted by the Israeli enemy with bursts of treacherous bullets while returning to his home".

Saleh, a member of the Druse religious minority, served 12 years in an Israeli prison on charges of using mines and explosives with the intention of killing Israeli civilians and soldiers.

In 1997, after his release, he went to Syria, where he was elected to parliament.

A senior Israeli defence official, who would not address Israel's involvement in any killing, said Saleh was working with Iran's Revolutionary Guard to establish the military infrastructure along the border necessary for an attack against Israel.

Israel has been operating aggressively against Iran in Syria since soon after the country's civil war began and has attacked Iranian or Iranian-related targets in the country hundreds of times, if not more, as well as carried out a series of assassinations.

The fighting between Israel and Iran inside Syria effectively constitutes a shadow war as regional powers test their opponents' abilities amid the carnage of the Syrian civil war.

Israel has long maintained that Iran represents a threat to its existence and has targeted the Islamic Republic's agents both outside and inside Iran, stymying its nuclear weapons program and killing its top scientists and operatives.

The Israelis are sensitive to Iran's presence in Syria. The assassination was the fourth attack this week against Iranian forces in Syria attributed to Israel.

Saleh, 54, was killed in Ein al-Tina, Syria, according to SANA, the Syrian state news agency. The town is directly across the border from Majdal Shams, the Druse village in which he was born.

The year of his birth, 1967, coincided with Israel's defeat of a coalition of Arab countries and the occupation of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau along the border.

He was arrested by Israeli intelligence agents in 1985, along with other Druse from the occupied Golan villages, and convicted of terrorism.

"I'm not saying we will kill the Jews or drive them away," he said in a 2007 interview with The Guardian. "I just want to live on my land."

After representing the Golan in Syria's parliament, he was appointed head of the country's Golan Office and an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad.

Saleh was praised by officials in Mr Assad's government, a regime that has brutalised its own people, including with gas attacks, for much of the past decade.

Syria's prime minister, Mr Hussein Arnous, described Saleh's assassination as a cowardly act. Mr Hussam Edin Aala, the country's United Nations representative, called him "a man who devoted his life to defending the rights of his people in the occupied Syrian Golan".