Israel on alert after warning to Syria

_16855_warplanes-29-6-2006.jpgIsraeli warplanes overflow Syrian President’s palace in northern Syria, sparking Damascus retaliation.
By Jennie Matthew – JERUSALEM Israel was on high alert Thursday for possible retaliation after it threatened to kill Hamas militants harboured by the Damascus regime and flew warplanes over Syria’s presidential palace.  

The army said it was bracing for any strikes by the Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militia, amid international concerns that the escalating crisis between Israel and the Palestinians could spread across the region.


“This measure has been taken due to concerns that the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah or other organizations will try to trigger an escalation of hostilities by launching border attacks,” an army spokeswoman said.


Israel was not preparing an offensive but merely preparing its units along the northern border to “be prepared to face any likely scenario,” she said.


Hezbollah, also backed by Syria’s main regional ally Iran, has carried out several deadly attacks along the Israeli-Lebanese border since Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in 2000.


Tensions are running high in the Middle East after Israel launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip Wednesday to hunt down a teenage soldier captured by Palestinian militants.


Israel has warned that Hamas militants exiled in Damascus, including political supreme Khaled Meshaal, are clearly in their sights over the kidnapping of 19-year-old Gilad Shalit in an attack on the Gaza border on Sunday that also killed two Israeli soldiers.


“Regimes that support terrorism are the ones playing with the Palestinian people’s destiny,” Defence Minister Amir Peretz warned Thursday.


Israeli warplanes overflew Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s palace in northern Syria Wednesday while the leader was inside, an operation Syrian state television called an “aggressive act and an unacceptable provocation.”


“This operation was launched due to the support and protection Syria gives Hamas, which is responsible for the kidnapping of our soldier,” the Israeli spokeswoman added.


UN Secretary General Kofi Annan voiced his concern about the escalating Middle East violence, and urged all sides to avoid the conflict spreading.


“We need to be very careful, not only not to escalate but not to expand the area of the conflict,” Annan said of the Israeli sortie over Assad’s palace.


“So it’s very important that we all take very careful steps to deescalate and not take any action or initiative that would expand or escalate the situation.”


Annan spoke to both Assad and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and urged them to assist as much as possible in the release of the soldier, according to the office of Olmert, who also spoke to the UN chief.


Public Security Minister Avi Dichter issued a direct threat against the Hamas militants on Wednesday, saying Israel had issued warnings to Syria about the presence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders but they had been disregarded.


“This therefore gives Israel full permission to attack these assassins,” said Dichter, a former chief of Israel’s domestic security agency Shin Beth.


“For years, Israel has held Syria responsible for some of the terrorist actions perpetrated on Israeli territory.”


In particular, Israeli leaders have pointed the finger at Meshaal, with one minister comparing him to Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.


Meshaal, 50, is one of Israel’s most wanted men and famously survived a bungled attempt by Mossad agents, who tried to poison him in 1997 in Jordan.


“He is definitely in our sights… He is a target. As someone who is overseeing, actually commanding the terror acts, he is definitely a target,” said Justice Minister Haim Ramon.


A close aide said in Amman that Meshaal was unafraid of Israeli threats.


“Abu al-Walid (Meshaal) believes in God and in fate. The Israeli threats do not scare him,” the aide said in a phone interview from Damascus. “He is used to living dangerously.”


Hamas’s spiritual leader and co-founder Ahmed Yassin and his successor Abdel Aziz Rantissi were killed in Israeli air strikes within a month of each other in 2004.

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