Israel launches US-backed missile shield on Syria frontier

An Israeli television station aired footage of what appeared to be an aeriel interception. (File Photo: AFP)
Updated 23 July 2018
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Israel launches US-backed missile shield on Syria frontier

  • Hundreds of war refugees return home from Lebanon
  • Israel has been on high alert as Syrian President Bashar Assad regains ground from southern fighters

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT: Israel launched its newest air defense system on Monday on the Syrian frontier, where Damascus’ Russian-backed forces have been routing fighters, as Moscow sent envoys for what it called “urgent” talks with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu met Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and its armed forces chief, Gen. Valery Gerasimov — a visit the Israeli leader said was arranged last week at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Israel has been on high alert as Syrian President Bashar Assad regains ground from southern fighters, bringing his forces close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

In a sign of high tensions, Israel launched two David’s Sling interceptor missiles at rockets which the Israeli military later said fell inside Syrian territory and were part of the internal fighting there.

It was Israel’s first published operational use of the mid-range missiles, which are jointly manufactured by US firm Raytheon. The incident triggered sirens in northern Israel and on the Golan.

Israel deployed the system last year to complement its short-range Iron Dome and long-range Arrow interceptors.

Netanyahu held talks with Putin in Moscow on July 11 amid Israeli concern that Assad, an old foe, may defy a 1974 demilitarization deal on the Golan or allow his Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies to deploy there.

Russia has said it wants to see the separation of forces on the frontier preserved. Lavrov’s deputy, Grigory Karasin, told Russian media the foreign minister's trip was “urgent and important.”

Netanyahu earlier said he would tell the envoys that “Israel insists on the separation of forces agreement between us and Syria being honored, as they were honoured for decades until the civil war in Syria broke out.”

Syrian pro-regime television said on Sunday an Israeli airstrike hit a military post in the city of Misyaf in Syria’s Hama province but caused only material damage. An Israeli military spokeswoman said it does not comment on foreign reports.

Also on Monday, hundreds of Syrian refugees left Lebanon for their neighboring home country — the latest such return coordinated between Beirut and Damascus.

In Lebanon's eastern border town of Arsal, men, women and children of all ages piled into vehicles.

Security forces checked the identity papers of those about to make the journey back to Syria with suitcases, boxes of food and even live poultry, an AFP photographer said.

“The voluntary repatriation of around 850 Syrian refugees started” on Monday morning.

Syria’s pro-regime news agency SANA said the first of “hundreds of Syrians coming from Lebanese territory” were heading to Qalamun outside the capital. 

Russia has also put forward plans to the US to cooperate for the safe return of refugees to Syria.

Moscow has proposed the establishment of working groups in Lebanon and Jordan, to where many refugees have fled, a Russian Defense Ministry official said on Friday.

An advisor to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has met Russia's deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to find out more about the initiative, the premier's office said on Saturday.

The step would "help solve the refugees' crisis in Lebanon and put an end to their suffering and its social and economic repercussions on the host countries, mainly Lebanon," it said in English.


Work underway to clear land mines from Jesus baptism site

Updated 10 December 2018
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Work underway to clear land mines from Jesus baptism site

  • Work at the site just north of the Dead Sea is being overseen by Israel’s Defense Ministry
  • Mines and other ordnance have been cleared from Ethiopian and Greek Orthodox monastery sites, organizers said

QASR AL-YAHUD, Palestinian Territories: Efforts to clear thousands of land mines and other ordnance around the site where many believe Jesus was baptized have reached a milestone and officials allowed a rare glimpse Sunday of abandoned churches there.

The church grounds around the site in the occupied West Bank have sat empty and decaying for around 50 years, though pilgrims have been able to visit a nearby restricted area at the traditional baptismal spot on the banks of the River Jordan.

Work at the site just north of the Dead Sea is being overseen by Israel’s Defense Ministry, de-mining charity Halo Trust and Israeli firm 4CI.

According to the ministry, the project covers around 1 square kilometer (250 acres) as well as some 3,000 mines and other explosive remnants.

It is expected to cost 20 million shekels ($5.3 million, €4.7 million).

The work began in March and would require another eight months to a year to complete, said Moshe Hilman of Israel’s Defense Ministry.

Mines and other ordnance have been cleared from Ethiopian and Greek Orthodox monastery sites as well as a Franciscan chapel, organizers said.

Other grounds belonging to Russian, Syrian, Romanian and Coptic Orthodox churches are yet to be cleared.

The plan once complete is to return the plots to the various church denominations and allow visits. At the crumbling, brick-and-concrete Ethiopian monastery on Sunday, a fading fresco of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist could still be seen inside.

Signs hung on the walls with notifications that the location had been cleared of explosives.

A collection of pieces of mortars and other explosive remnants sat alongside a nearby roadside as a demonstration of some of what had been found.

“The Halo Trust has reached a pivotal point in our work to clear the baptism site of land mines and other remnants of war,” the charity’s CEO James Cowan said in a statement.

He added that “we have completed clearance of the Ethiopian, Greek and Franciscan churches.”

The majority of the mines were laid by Israeli forces after the country seized control of the West Bank in 1967 from Jordanian troops. Other unexploded ordnance from both Israel and Jordan has remained lodged in the ground, including around the churches, which were evacuated by Israel in the 1970s.

Israel’s control of the West Bank has never been recognized by the international community, which considers the land occupied Palestinian territory.