Several mortar shells exploded in an open area in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria Saturday afternoon, the army said, leading to retaliatory air strikes.
The Hezbollah-affiliated al-Mayadeen TV station claimed two Syrian soldiers were killed in the strikes, though there was no official confirmation by Syrian officials.
The army said the mortars appeared to be errant fire from Syrian factions fighting each other across the border. Around 10 impacts were identified in Israeli territory, around the Quneitra area.
There was no damage and no injuries were reported in the mortar attack. With Israelis flocking to the Golan in the summer for hikes and fruit picking, the military said it had taken the precautionary step of asking civilians to avoid gathering near the border with Syria following the attack.
The military retaliated with several air strikes on Syrian regime positions, in what has become the standard response in such cases. The army said it struck two tanks and a post from which the mortars were fired.
Israel also lodged a formal complaint with the UN over the incident.
The military said it “will not tolerate any attempt to harm Israeli sovereignty and the security of its citizens” and held the regime responsible for all attacks launched from Syrian territory.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday rejected a Wall Street Journal report claiming Israel provides financial aid to rebel groups in Syria.
“We do not interfere in this terribly bloody conflict. We do, however, provide humanitarian aid to young boys and girls,” Netanyahu said. “It is expensive, but we will continue to invest.”
The prime minister said that more than a thousand Syrian men, women and children had been treated at Ziv Medical Center in Safed. Many more have been treated at a field hospital the IDF maintains at the Syrian border.
“They once saw us as enemies,” he said of these patients, “but here they realize more than ever that Israel is a moral bastion and a beacon of light in the region,” where “all are treated equally,” irrespective of their religion and origin.
Citing interviews with half a dozen rebel leaders and three persons familiar Israel’s undeclared policy, the Sunday report in the Journalclaimed that Israel set up a special military unit in 2016 to oversee and coordinate the transfer of financial aid — valued at some $5,000 per month — to rebel forces opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian, Lebanese and Russian allies.
This “secret engagement,” the report said, is aimed to help ensure that forces friendly to Israel control the Syrian side of the northern Golan border. The aid, said the Journal, helps the groups pay salaries and buy weapons and ammunition.
A separate UN report, published last month, describes a series of meetings between Israeli military representatives and Syrian rebel leaders near the Syrian border, observed by UN peacekeepers.
The May report from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) of peacekeepers stated that “there has been a significant increase in interaction between Israel Defense Forces soldiers and individuals from the Bravo (Syrian) side.”
The UN report went on to cite 16 meetings it had observed taking place between the IDF and unknown officials on the Syrian side of the border in the past year.
Israel has largely stayed out of the Syrian civil war, which broke out in March 2011, but has over the years acknowledged that it helps treat wounded Syrians who arrive at its border, and provides some of them with humanitarian assistance. It has also claimed a number of airstrikes in Syria it says were meant to prevent arch-foe Hezbollah from acquiring advanced weaponry from Iran via Damascus. Netanyahu has repeatedly confirmed that Israel was actively working to disrupt Hezbollah’s arms smuggling operations in Syria and build-up of capabilities on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
In response to the Wall Street Journal report, the IDF said Israel was “committed to securing the borders of Israel and preventing the establishment of terror cells and hostile forces… in addition to providing humanitarian aid to the Syrians living in the area.”