An Israeli air strike against Syria was targeting a shipment of advanced missiles bound for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Israeli officials confirmed yesterday. It was the second Israeli strike this year against Syria and the latest salvo in its long-running effort to disrupt Hezbollah's quest to build an arsenal capable of defending it against Israel's air force and spreading destruction inside the Jewish state.
The officials said the attack took place early on Friday and was aimed at sophisticated "game-changing" weapons, but not chemical arms. One said the target was a shipment of advanced, long-range ground-to-ground missiles. It was not immediately clear where the attack took place, or whether the air force carried out the strike from Lebanese or Syrian airspace. US officials had earlier confirmed the strike but said only that it appeared to have hit a warehouse.
One source told Reuters that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had convened his security cabinet in Jerusalem on Thursday night for secret talks – often a sign of imminent action. The source, who would not be identified by name or nationality, did not elaborate on what was discussed at the meeting. A CNN report said that the United States had collected information showing Israeli warplanes flying over Lebanon. A White House spokeswoman referred questions on the report to the Israeli government.
Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly warned in recent weeks that Israel would be prepared to take military action if chemical weapons or other arms that would upset the balance of power were to reach Hezbollah. Syria's assistant information minister, Khalaf Muftah, told Hezbollah's al-Manar TV that he has "no information about an aggression that was staged", and said reports of an Israeli air raid "come in the framework of psychological war in preparation of an aggression against Syria".
It is not the first time since Syria's crisis erupted in 2011 that Israel has struck inside Syria. In January, the Israeli air force is believed to have targeted a shipment of advanced SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah. Israel has not formally admitted to carrying out that air strike, though officials have strongly hinted they were behind the attack.
The strikes follow decades of enmity between Israel and the allies Syria and Hezbollah, which consider the Jewish state their mortal enemy. The situation has been further complicated by the civil war raging in Syria. The war has drained President Bashar al-Assad's military and threatens to deprive Hezbollah of a key supporter, in addition to its land corridor to Iran.
The two countries provide Hezbollah with the bulk of its funding and arms. Israel and Hezbollah fought an inconclusive 34-day war in 2006 which left 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis dead.
While the border has been largely quiet since, the struggle has taken other forms. Hezbollah has accused Israel of assassinating a top commander, and Israel blamed Hezbollah and Iran for a 2012 attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. In October, Hezbollah launched an Iranian-made reconnaissance drone over Israel, using the incident to brag about its expanding capabilities.
Israeli officials believe that Hezbollah's arsenal has markedly improved since 2006, now boasting tens of thousands of rockets and missiles and the ability to strike almost anywhere inside Israel.