Air Force F-16 D fighter jet taking off at the Ramat David Air Force Base. Photo by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Reports: Israel bombs chemical weapons factory in Syria

Tensions between Israel and Syria increased after reports that Israel hit a research center responsible for developing chemical weapons near the city of Hama. Two Syrian soldiers were reported killed.

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Adhering to its past policy, Israel did not officially take responsibility for the attack.

“The IDF policy is that we don’t respond to foreign allegations or reports,” an Israeli army spokesman told The Media Line.

But both in Israel and abroad there seemed to be little question that Israel was behind the attack, which was being seen in Israel as a message to Syria, and its main allies, Iran and Russia.

The Syrian army warned of “serious consequences” after confirming reports that Israel was behind the attack. In a bizarre twist, it accused Israel of supporting Islamic State, which has been fighting the Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad.

“The Syrian army warns of the serious consequences of these kinds of aggressive activities against the security and stability in the region,” the statement said. “The army is determined to destroy terrorism and obliterate it in all Syrian territory, and it doesn’t matter what kind of aid is given to these terror gangs,” it said, apparently referring to Islamic State.

The attack took place on the Scientific Studies and Research Center (CERS) near the city of Hama, which is responsible for research and development of nuclear, biological, chemical and missile technology and weapons in Syria. The attack came as Israel is in the midst of the largest drill in almost 20 years that simulates a war between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite group Hizbullah.

“Israel said clearly that if we will see a strategic threat against Israel we will act,” Col. Kobi Marom, a research associate with the International Institute of Counter-terrorism (ICT) in Herzliya told The Media Line. “This is part of a message to Iran that if they try to build a missile industry to supply Hizbullah with missiles that can reach Tel Aviv that is a red line for Israel.”

He said the timing was also a way of showing Hizbullah and its patron Iran that Israel is far more prepared today than it was when Israel and Hizbullah last fought a war in 2006. Marom says the large-scale exercise is meant to show that Israel can fight simultaneously against both Syria and Lebanon if needed.

The Israeli attack came as Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, backed by Hizbullah and Russia, has scored impressive gains against both Islamic State and Syrian rebel groups. After six years of fighting it now seems as if Assad will remain in power, and that Islamic State will be defeated.

Marom says Israel is growing increasingly concerned that Iran will try to maintain a presence in southern Lebanon after any fighting ends.

“The Iranian strategy is to occupy more territory and try to build an advanced industry and develop missiles that can reach Tel Aviv,” Marom said. “That is a red line for Israel. I cannot imagine that Israel will allow the Iranians to deploy 25 miles from the Israeli border. That is a threat not only to Israel but to Jordan and others who care about the Iranian influence in the Middle East.”

The attack on the Syrian facility came a day after UN war crimes investigators said that Syrian forces used chemical weapons more than two dozen times during the country’s civil war. In one recent case, in Khan Sheikhoun in April, at least 80 civilians were killed.

The UN report were the most extensive findings to date from international investigations into the use of chemical weapons during the six years of fighting in Syria. The UN commission aslo found that a US air strike on a mosque in rural Aleppo that killed 38 people including children could be a violation of international law for failing to take precautions to avoid killing civilians.

Obama commends Netanyahu on ceasefire pledge

President Barack Obama on Wednesday spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and commended him for agreeing to the Egyptian government's ceasefire plan in the Middle East, the White House said.

Israel and Hamas agreed on Wednesday to a ceasefire brokered by Egypt to end eight days of fighting in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 140 Palestinians and five Israelis.

“The president expressed his appreciation for the Prime Minister's efforts to work with the new Egyptian government to achieve a sustainable ceasefire and a more durable solution to this problem,” a White House statement said.

Obama reiterated his commitment to Israel's security and also said he was committed to seeking funds for joint missile defense programs.

Syrian forces kill 34 in Hama as crackdown intensifies

Syrian security forces shot dead at least 34 demonstrators in Hama on Friday, an activist said, in one of the bloodiest incidents in their crackdown on an 11-week-old revolt against President Bashar Assad’s rule.

In a pattern seen every Friday since mid-March, protesters have marched out of mosques after noon prayers, to be met by security forces intent on crushing a revolt against Assad, in power in Syria for the last 11 years.

Three residents said security forces and snipers fired at tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in the city centre in one of the biggest protests seen so far in Hama, and scores of wounded were taken to a nearby hospital.


Clinton: Syria’s brutal crackdown on protests is a sign of weakness

In some of her strongest remarks yet on Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham said Thursday the brutal crackdown against protesters demonstrated the government’s weakness, though she stopped short of saying President Bashar Assad must quit.

Syrian soldiers and tanks surrounded the city of Hama, which President Bashar Assad’s father laid waste to in 1982 to stamp out an earlier uprising, an activist said. Government forces also used clubs to disperse 2,000 demonstrators on a northern university campus.

Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, is trying to crush an uprising that exploded nearly two months ago and is now posing the gravest threat to his family’s 40-year ruling dynasty. The level of violence is intensifying as forces move into more volatile areas, and the United States called the crackdown “barbaric.”


Hamas refuses cargo from flotilla ships

Hamas has refused to accept the aid brought by a Gaza-bound flotilla intercepted by Israel.

Israel said Tuesday that dozens of trucks loaded with cargo from three of the ships arrived at the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza and were ready to enter.

But the following day, Hamas Social Affairs Minister Ahmad al-Kurd told reporters that it would accept the aid only if it entered “without anything being stolen from the activists, and without any exceptions.”

“This includes the prefabricated homes, the cement, the iron and the electric generators,” he said.

Israel has prevented such equipment from entering Gaza, saying it could be used by Hamas to build bunkers and other military installations in the strip. Hamas took over the coastal strip three years ago, and Israel since then has been in armed conflict with the terrorist group.

Inspectors had not found any cement, Israel’s military said, though it had not unloaded all of the boats because the military needs the trucks that are already filled with aid in order to unload the rest.

The cargo was scattered throughout each ship and not packed in an organized fashion, Ynet reported, citing the port’s CEO Shuli Sagis.

X-rays and dogs inspected the goods, which included food and toys.

Meanwhile, Egypt opened its border with Gaza on Tuesday, allowing Palestinians to cross freely. The Rafah crossing will remain open for an unlimited time, Reuters reported. Egypt, like Israel, had closed its border with Gaza when Hamas took over three years ago, opening it only occasionally.

Egypt will allow aid convoys carrying food and medical supplies. Building materials will be required to go through Israel, Reuters reported.

Also Tuesday afternoon, the Israeli Justice Ministry responded to two petitions filed with the nation’s Supreme Court against Israel’s decision to intercept the flotilla and determined that the action was legal.

Meanwhile, Israel is set to release all of the Arab passengers on the flotilla to Jordan, from where they will return to their countries of origin, including Mauritania, Morocco, Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria, Ynet reported. The mahority of activists were set to be deported by Wednesday evening.