This week’s Israeli airstrike on an Islamic Jihad training camp near Damascus, which followed the group’s deadly suicide bombing in Haifa on Saturday, was a sign to the Arab world that Israel will not be constrained by borders when it comes to the war on terrorism.
The attack came hours before the 30th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, when Israel was blindsided by Syria and Egypt.
Combined with Israel’s anti-terror operations in the West Bank and Gaza and the construction of the security fence, the strike against terrorist camps in Syria appears to show that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not willing to restrict its military operations to reap the benefits of diplomatic restraint.
Sunday’s strike was also a message to Syria, which has offered support to Palestinian terrorist groups and is on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist-sponsoring nations.
The strike, Sharon spokesman Ra’anan Gissin said, “was a very clear, focused message [to Syria to] start dismantling the terror organizations that operate from its territory,” Reuters reported.
The bombing that prompted the strike killed at least 19 people in Haifa, including several children, and wounded 45.
In an echo of President Bush’s warning to state supporters of terrorists following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner said, “Any country who harbors terrorism, who trains, supports and encourages them, will be responsible to answer for their actions,” Ha’aretz reported.
Syria’s response to the first Israeli attack deep inside its territory in almost three decades was somewhat muted, though it called the strike a “grave escalation.”
The country’s foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, said Syria would not respond militarily to the attack but that Syria would press the U.N. Security Council to convene and discuss the attack.
In an apparent effort to minimize the affront to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Israeli government spokespeople emphasized that the target inside Syrian territory was Palestinian and came strictly to “send a message” following Islamic Jihad’s suicide bombing a Haifa restaurant.
Jerusalem probably will not suffer too much diplomatic fallout as a result of its strike in Syria.
In recent months, the U.S. State Department has stepped up pressure on Assad to curtail the activities of terrorist groups operating inside Syria and headquartered in Damascus, but to no avail. Washington also is unlikely to be impressed with Islamic Jihad’s denial that Israel’s target was one of its training camps.
Also, early reports said the Israeli strike resulted in very few casualties, a fact likely to temper any negative diplomatic consequences.
Some analysts said the Israeli action could result in some serious soul-searching in Damascus.
While Assad could avenge the attack near Damascus using his Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, he has not done so in the past when faced with an Israeli strike on a Syrian target. After Sharon ordered the bombing of a Syrian radar installation in Lebanon in 2001 in response to Hezbollah shelling of Har Dov in northern Israel, things in southern Lebanon grew quieter, rather than more combatant.
Sunday’s strike also takes some heat off of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
While some Israeli lawmakers renewed their calls for Arafat’s expulsion following the Haifa bombing, Israel’s decision to focus on Syrian training camps rather than punish the Palestinian leader for his inaction against terrorists means Arafat is probably safe from Israeli action — for now.
Minutes after the Haifa bombing, Arafat’s elite militia, Force 17, set up gun encampments around Arafat’s Ramallah compound, intent on mounting a defense against Israeli commandos. But despite Israel’s Cabinet decision last month to, in principle, “remove” the Palestinian leader from power, no such action was forthcoming.
Instead, Israeli helicopter gunships rocketed terrorist arsenals in Gaza Strip.
However, what Arafat gained in security he lost in dignity, some analysts noted. Sounding the false alarms of a call to his defense, and issuing a quick denunciation of the Haifa bombing, Arafat’s moves had a ring of desperation in many Palestinian ears.
The move against Syria, and the relative inattention to Arafat in the wake of Saturday’s terrorist attack, has shifted the spotlight onto Islamic Jihad, the other major Palestinian Islamic terrorist group after Hamas.
While kindred in ideology to Hamas, Islamic Jihad lacks Hamas’ public profile and popularity, in part because it does not have Hamas’ extensive network of social services.
Damascus was one of the few places where Islamic Jihad enjoyed full official status. But with Israel’s airstrike — and the deadly bombing in Haifa on the eve of Judaism’s holiest day — the group could face new pressure to curtail its activities.
“We will not tolerate the continuation of this axis of terror between Tehran, Damascus and Gaza to continue to operate and kill innocent men, women and children,” the Israeli prime minister’s spokesman, Gissin, said, according to media reports.