Middle East

Israel vows response as 4 troops wounded by Golan bomb

An Israeli army officer listens to a soldier who was wounded during an explosion as he is evacuated to a hospital, in the northern city of Haifa March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Moran Mayan/Jinipix

JERUSALEM: A roadside bomb wounded four Israeli soldiers on the occupied Golan Heights Tuesday, prompting artillery fire into Syria and a sharp warning that Israel would act forcefully to defend itself.

The army said one of the soldiers was severely wounded in what was the third such incident in two weeks along Israel's northern frontier, prompting a blunt warning from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Recently the border with Syria has filled with jihadists and Hezbollah elements, which represents a new threat for the state of Israel," he said, referring to Lebanon's powerful Shiite movement, which is fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops. 

Netanyahu said the ceasefire line in the Golan had remained largely calm, despite the three-year civil war raging in Syria, but that Israel would not hesitate to act in self-defence.

"We will act forcefully to preserve Israel's security," he warned.

Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, analysts pointed to similarities with an explosion last week targeting troops along the Lebanese border, which was blamed on Hezbollah, and a similar attempt in the Golan on March 5. 

An Israeli security source said Tuesday's incident targeted a patrol driving along the ceasefire line near the Druze town of Majdal Shams. 

"The soldiers were in a jeep near the fence and they saw something suspicious, so they got out and that's when the device went off," the source told AFP. 

The Israeli army confirmed four soldiers had been wounded by an explosive device, prompting troops to open fire on Syrian military positions.

"We view the Syrian army as responsible for this incident... this indicates our response to the attack," military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner told reporters, saying it was the most serious incident on the Golan since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. 

He was unable to confirm whether or not Hezbollah had been involved in the blast, which he said struck "adjacent to the fence, east of Majdal Shams, in the area under Israeli sovereignty."

Israel occupied the Golan in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981 in a move never recognised by the international community.

The bombing came four days after the blast targeting Israeli troops on the Lebanese border, very close to Syria, which prompted Israel to shell Hezbollah positions over the border.

A Lebanese security source said 10 Israeli rockets had slammed into an uninhabited border area.

On March 5, the Israeli army said troops on the Golan had opened fire on Hezbollah members as they tried to plant a bomb near the ceasefire line. It claimed to have struck the two fighters but did not say what weapon it used or whether they died.

Hezbollah did not comment on the incident.

Analysts linked the escalation in border tensions to a February 24 air strike which targeted a Hezbollah position in Lebanon, close to the Syrian border, which the Shiite group blamed on Israel. 

If confirmed, it would be the first Israeli attack against Hezbollah inside Lebanon since their 2006 war, which killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and some 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Hezbollah has vowed to respond to the air strike. 

"Israel has assessed that Hezbollah would attempt to find a way to express its displeasure, to put it mildly," wrote defence expert Alex Fishman in Israel's Yediot Aharonot newspaper earlier this week. 

He said last week's attack was "a message" to Israel that it could not attack Hezbollah positions with impunity, saying: "You overdid it. When you bomb our weapons convoys in Syria, you are dealing with the Syrians. In Lebanon, you're dealing with us."





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