JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel threatened to launch a military attack against Syria, accusing Damascus of being directly implicated in a double Hamas suicide attack which killed 16 people.
As Israel’s top diplomats pressed their case that Damascus should pay the price for sheltering Hamas leaders, deputy defense minister Zeev Boim dropped strong hints that a strike on Syrian targets could be imminent.
“The rule that ‘anyone who deals in terror against Israel is a target’ is a rule that must be stated and one that we must stand behind,” Boim told public radio, adding that Israel would take care not to cause a “conflagration” on its northern border.
“It is possible to launch operations, provided that the targets are well chosen and that the moment is right, in order to make the Syrians understand that there are red lines that cannot be crossed,” he added.
Boim was reacting to comments by the chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, Yuval Steinitz, who proposed “to attack Syrian targets, especially in Lebanon (where Syria has around 20,000 troops), despite the risk of a flare-up on the northern border.”
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom had earlier said that Syria “is responsible for terrorist acts against us because this country is home of the headquarters of terrorist organizations and orders to carry out these attacks are given in Damascus.”
Syria “must understand that this policy will have clear consequences… if we believe that Damascus has crossed a red line we will act,” he added.
Sixteen people as well as the two bombers were killed on Tuesday in a double suicide attack in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the radical Islamist movement Hamas whose senior leader, Khaled Meshaal, is based in Damascus.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s official spokesman, Raanan Gissin, told AFP that “the order for the terrorist attacks comes directly from Khaled Meshaal’s bureau based in Damascus.”
The attacks in Beersheva were the deadliest since a suicide bombing in the port city of Haifa last October, which left 21 people and the female bomber dead.
Israel responded to that attack, carried out by the smaller Islamic Jihad organisation, with an air strike on an alleged Palestinian militant training camp deep inside Syria.
Meshaal was the target of an failed assassination bid by Israeli agents in Jordan in 1997. He emerged as undisputed leader earlier this year after Hamas’ co-founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor Abdelaziz Rantissi were both killed in Israeli air strikes.
As well as the threats of military action, Israeli diplomats are stepping up their efforts to convince other governments of Damascus’ ties to Hamas.
Danny Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, is to present Bush administration officials with intelligence information on the links while Shalom was expected to press the same message at talks with Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
While officials were setting their sights on Damascus, the army also launched attacks in Hamas’ traditional Gaza Strip stronghold.
At least four Palestinians were wounded late Wednesday when an Israel helicopter gunship fired a rocket at a target in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis during an army incursion.
Israeli sources said that the helicopter had opened fire at a group of Palestinians who had thrown petrols bombs at troops taking part in an operation “targetting the terrorist infrastructure”.
The army also announced that soldiers had discovered a 10-meter deep tunnel in central Gaza, which was believed to have been dug to carry out an attack inside a nearby Jewish settlement.