Third exchange of fire over Golan Heights in a week heightens concern at violence on Israel-Syria border

 

Jerusalem

Israeli and Syrian troops exchanged fire across the Golan Heights today, the third time this week that the two sides have clashed across the disputed border.

According to the Israeli army - the IDF - troops came under fire, with at least one vehicle left damaged after the incident. IDF artillery units responded with Tammuz missiles. The Israeli military said its troops "returned precise fire" after the vehicle was hit.

While the damage was limited in the latest skirmish - no injuries were reported - officials will be concerned at what appears to be an increase in violence at the border. Earlier this week, Israeli forces said that they had come under fire in two separate incidents, and while they had not responded the incident had been reported to UN officials in the area.

It is unclear whether the latest bout of cross border fire from the Syrian side has come from regular forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, or from rebel groups operating in the area. A number of Salafist units are thought to be fighting Assad's army close to the border area.

Yesterday, the Syrian army claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a statement that it had "destroyed an Israeli vehicle with everything that it had in it". The statement said the vehicle was shot at after it crossed the ceasefire line.

Defence officials and diplomats in Israel are increasingly worried that the violence in Syria could spill across its border. Just over two weeks ago, Israel is understood to have targeted three sites near Damascus - the country will not confirm the raid, but has repeatedly said that it will prevent sophisticated weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah, the Islamist group based in Lebanon.

Benny Gantz, the IDF chief of staff, said: "We will not allow the area of the Golan Heights to turn into an easy target for  Syrian attacks.

"We are seeing things happening in Syria - the transfer of military equipment, Assad is issuing warnings, talking, leading and encouraging the expansion of actions against the State of Israel at various levels, including the Golan Heights.

"Last night Syrian positions fired three times while we were patrolling along the border fence.  We've had enough – the position was destroyed. We will not allow the area of the Golan Heights to turn into an easy target for Syrian attacks. If he tries to do so, he will suffer the consequences.  I am not a belligerent man, but we have to be prepared to defend ourselves. All in all, the situation in the Golan Heights is increasingly unstable."

The Golan Heights is an area that Israel seized in the war of 1967, and annexed the territory in 1981. The territory is considered occupied by the international community.

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