Major Israeli air raids hit ‘Iranian targets’ in Syria

Israeli F-16 fighter jet shot down amid Syrian fire. (File photo: AFP)
Updated 10 February 2018
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Major Israeli air raids hit ‘Iranian targets’ in Syria

JERUSALEM: Israel struck what it said were Iranian targets inside Syria on Saturday in “large-scale” raids after an Israeli warplane crashed under fire from Syrian air defenses in a severe increase in tensions, the military said.
The confrontation was the most serious between arch foes Israel and Iran since the civil war in Syria began in 2011.
Israel’s raids came after it intercepted what it said was an Iranian drone entering its airspace from Syria, which it labelled an “attack.”
It was the first time Israel has publicly acknowledged attacking what it identified as Iranian targets in Syria since the conflict started.
Iran denounced Israeli “lies” and said Syria had the right to self-defense in response to Israeli strikes.
Separately, Iran issued a joint statement with the Syrian regime’s other main allies — Russia and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah — denying the allegations regarding the drone.
Russia’s foreign ministry called for “restraint” from all parties, adding it was “unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian soldiers” in Syria.
Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus warned that Syria and Iran were “playing with fire,” but stressed his country was not seeking an escalation.
“This is the most blatant and severe Iranian violation of Israeli sovereignty in the last years,” Conricus told journalists.
Israel said its reprisals after the exchange were “large-scale” raids that attacked Syrian air defense systems and Iranian targets.
“Twelve targets, including three aerial defense batteries and four Iranian targets that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria were attacked,” a military statement said.
Israel has repeatedly warned in recent weeks against the presence of Iranian forces in neighboring Syria.
The two Israeli crew of the crashed F16 were alive, although one was severely wounded, the military said.
Israel’s military said the confrontation began with the drone entering its airspace before being intercepted by a combat helicopter.
Conricus said it was intercepted well inside Israel over the city of Beit Shean, near the border with Jordan.
He did not say whether the drone was armed or for reconnaissance, but alleged it “was on a military mission sent by Iranian military forces” from an “Iranian base” in the Palmyra area.
Eight Israeli aircraft then “targeted the Iranian control systems in Syria that sent the UAV” and confirmed hits, Conricus said.
He said the aircraft met “massive Syrian anti-air fire,” and the F16 later crashed in northern Israel’s Jezreel valley.
Conricus said the jet probably crashed as a result of the anti-aircraft fire, without saying definitively.
According to the military, the pilots ejected, landed in Israel and were taken to hospital.
Syria said its air defenses repelled two Israeli raids on its military bases in the center of the country, hitting more than one warplane during the first.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the seven-year civil war, said the earlier Israeli raids had targeted several military bases in the east of the central province of Homs.
It said the bases are used by both Iranian and Russian military personnel deployed in support of the regime.
Syrian state media said the later raids targeted military positions in the south.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said that “to cover their crimes in the region, Israeli officials are resorting to lies against other countries.”
He said “Iran does not have a military presence in Syria, and has only sent military advisers at the request of the Syrian government.”
Iran, Russia and Hezbollah — the Syrian regime’s main allies — issued a statement calling Israel’s drone allegations “lies.”
It said Israel’s strikes had targeted drones used against “terrorist organizations,” mainly the Daesh group.
The statement vowed a “relentless response” to “all further aggression.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met officials including Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and military Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot later Saturday.
He has held a series of talks in recent months with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Iran’s influence in Syria and Lebanon.
Netanyahu has been seeking to persuade Russia to limit Iran’s presence near Israel and to stop it from entrenching itself militarily in Syria.
In Moscow last month, Netanyahu reiterated concerns over what he called attempts by Iran to establish a military presence in Syria and produce weapons against Israel there.
“We won’t accept either of those, and will act according to our needs,” he said.
Israel remains technically at war with Syria and occupies a swathe of the strategic Golan Heights that it seized in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed in a move never recognized by the international community.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu took members of his security cabinet for a tour of the Israeli-occupied side, where they were briefed by the military.
Israel has sought to avoid direct involvement in the Syrian war, but acknowledges carrying out dozens of air strikes there to stop what it calls advanced arms deliveries to Hezbollah.
Analysts said they did not expect a further escalation for now, but suggested the heavy anti-aircraft fire showed Syria was more emboldened to stop Israel’s strikes.
Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group said Russia should mediate since “it is the only stakeholder which has strong relations with all sides today.”
But he said “this incident signals a new phase in a way of the war in Syria.”


US aid suspension hits Gaza’s poor

Updated 44 min 31 sec ago
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US aid suspension hits Gaza’s poor

  • Since January, US financing for humanitarian programs serving the Palestinians has been suspended
  • Trump has threatened to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to force the Palestinians back to the negotiating table with Israel

GAZA CITY: Hadil Al-Rafati gently adjusts her anaemia-stricken toddler’s frail legs onto her lap in the lobby of an NGO’s clinic in Gaza City.
The program providing treatment to her son is among those in the enclave facing cuts or closure due to a freeze on US aid to the Palestinians, organizers say.
“He weighs 7.2 kilogrammes (16 pounds), but at a year and a month, he should be at least 10,” the 21-year-old mother said of her son, Essam.
Since January, US financing for humanitarian programs serving the Palestinians has been suspended, with Washington saying it is being reviewed.
President Donald Trump has threatened to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to force the Palestinians back to the negotiating table with Israel.
On a recent day, around 15 mothers waited in the lobby of the clinic run by Palestinian organization Ard Al-Insan to see a paediatrician or to receive food supplements for their children.
Certain services have been maintained with available funding, but the program is due to expire at the end of August if the money is not released.
“They help us, give us medicine,” said Rafati, who is unemployed and whose husband picks up odd jobs to make ends meet.
“If they close, where will we go?“
The Gaza Strip, controlled by Islamist movement Hamas, has been under an Israeli blockade for more than 10 years. The two sides have fought three wars since 2008.
Some 80 percent of the enclave’s two million residents rely on aid, according to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).
Trump’s comments on aid in January came after Palestinian leaders suspended relations with the White House over its deeply controversial recognition of the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Since then, the passage of a US law in March withholding certain aid to the Palestinians over payments made to prisoners jailed for security offenses, or to the families of those killed while carrying out attacks against Israelis, has further complicated the situation.
Some $215 million (183.5 million euros) that the United States was to invest in humanitarian aid and development in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip has been held up, according to an analysis for the US Congress.
US financing for UNRWA has also been blocked.
“At President Trump’s direction, assistance to the Palestinians remains under review,” a US State Department official said.
Some programs are already facing cuts, such as the Palestine Avenir for Childhood Foundation, which has not renewed contracts for some 30 employees since the start of the year.
Suffering from cerebral palsy, nine-month-old Maher had been receiving four physiotherapy sessions per week from the organization.
He now only comes twice per week due to a lack of available therapists.
“The change has been huge in the last three months,” said his mother Nada Abu Assi, 27, as she watches her son move with the help of a support device.
The foundation’s director, Ahmad Alkashif, said “these are the last beneficiaries,” adding that hundreds of children are on its waiting list.
The project, financed by Washington’s development agency USAID, is part of a $50 million program started in 2016 and meant to last five years.
Some 20,000 patients were to benefit from the plan, with the possibility of extending it to 250,000 in case of disaster.
“Unless the funding hold is lifted in the next three months, the ‘Health Matters’ program will close, leaving the most vulnerable families in Gaza without even the most basic health care services,” said Ky Luu, chief operating officer of International Medical Corps, an American NGO contracted for the program.
The health system in the enclave is already badly struggling.
In recent months, it has faced an influx of more than 4,000 wounded Palestinians hit by Israeli gunfire during border protests and clashes.
At least 149 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the protests and clashes began on March 30. One Israeli soldier has been shot dead.
“It’s another burden that we must carry,” said Suhaila Tarazi, director general of the Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza City.
Without the US aid, training for surgeons will be canceled, she said.
“Many will wait and suffer,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.
Each month, more than 2,000 Gazans request permission from Israel to leave the enclave for health care.
Last year, only 54 percent of requests were approved and 54 patients died before being able to leave, according to the World Health Organization.
Many fear the loss of US funding will be impossible to replace.
“There is no follow-up for projects,” said Iyad Abu Hijayer, deputy director of the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution.
“In general, for years financing has decreased.”