Israeli military and Syrian regular army troops exchanged fire early Tuesday along the cease-fire line in the occupied Golan Heights, an area that has become a potential flash point for spillover from the civil war in Syria.
After an Israel Defense Forces jeep was hit by small-arms fire from the Syrian military post, Israel “returned pinpoint fire at the source,” according to an Israeli military spokesman.
Israeli defense officials said Israel responded with a short-range, antitank Spike missile.
While there have been a number of stray mortar and rocket rounds fired from Syria into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, most of those incidents were considered accidents. The intentional targeting of Israeli forces, as occurred Tuesday, has been much more rare.
The Syrian army released a statement claiming that its forces “destroyed an Israeli vehicle with everything that it had in it.” The Syrians said the jeep was attacked only after it crossed the cease-fire line in the direction of a village called Bir al-Ajam, one of several on the Syrian side that have changed hands in fighting between rebels and Syrian regular army forces in recent months.
“The jeep was on the Israeli side of the line,” said Capt. Eytan Buchman, an IDF spokesman. He said the vehicle was struck by one bullet and the soldiers were unharmed.
“We will not remain silent about shots fired from Syria into our territory,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel army radio. “Our policy is very clear in regards to Syria. We do not plan to get involved in the civil war there, but the situation on the Golan Heights might not allow this and might not allow us to ignore what is happening there.”
Earlier in the day, Gen. Benny Gantz, the IDF chief of staff, visited the Golan and met with forces based there.
The cease-fire line around the village of Bir al-Ajam is at one of its narrowest sections, just a few kilometers wide. U.N. peacekeeping forces patrol the buffer zone between Israel and Syria.
For 40 years, the Israel-Syria cease-fire line has been quiet. But in recent months, U.N. forces have been kidnapped, and later released, by Syrian rebel groups operating in the area, who said the U.N. troops were merely detained for their own protection.
Relations between Syria and Israel have worsened in recent weeks, since Israel carried out a series of airstrikes in Syria, targeting the transfer of weapons to the Lebanese Shiite political and military organization Hezbollah.
The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accused Israel of aiding the rebel forces that oppose him.
On Monday, Syrian news outlets reported that the Syrian army had captured an Israeli jeep used by rebel forces, calling it proof that Israel was aiding Assad’s enemies.
Israeli military spokesmen said that, based on identification numbers on the vehicle seen in the new footage, the jeep had been decommissioned more than a decade ago and was last in the hands of the now defunct South Lebanon Army, a militia supported by Israel to fight against the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hezbollah years ago.
n Syria on Tuesday, airstrikes and heavy clashes continued in Qusair for a third day, as the government attempted to wrest back control of the the strategic western town.
Ringed by government forces, as many as 20,000 civilians are estimated to be still trapped inside the town, which lies just over the Lebanese border and has been under rebel control for more than a year.
Gaining control of Qusair would be a potentially game-changing win for Assad’s government, which has called on militants from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah to back its forces in the assault.
The government and the opposition have given conflicting accounts of how far pro-Assad forces have managed to penetrate the town.
In a statement Tuesday, the government claimed to have “restored stability” to the majority of Qusair, inflicting “heavy losses” on rebels, but videos posted online by the opposition showed evidence of a fierce ongoing battle.
Ahmed, an activist based in the town who gave only one name, said opposition forces were holding firm.
“The Free Syrian Army haven’t given a meter,” he said via Skype.
Ahmed said two airstrikes Tuesday morning had killed three people. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the dead included two children.
That assertion appeared to be backed up by a video posted online by rebel activists showing the bodies of two young boys who the opposition said had been killed in the assault. Another showed thick smoke billowing over the city to the sound of heavy artillery fire. About 10 explosions a minute could be heard as the cameraman panned the skyline.
Formed to fight Israel, Hezbollah’s increasing entrenchment in a conflict with fellow Muslims is stirring controversy at home in Lebanon. Three more Hezbollah militants died Tuesday, according the the Observatory, taking the total number of its fighters killed to 31. The opposition group said that at least 68 Syrian rebels and nine Syrian army soldiers have been killed over the three days of fighting.
Morris reported from Beirut.