JERUSALEM — An Israeli tank hit a Syrian artillery-launcher Monday after a mortar shell fell on the Golan Heights, raising fears that the Jewish state could be dragged into the raging Syrian civil war now entering its 20th month.
Israeli officials said that the tank fire hit a Russian-made D-30 howitzer responsible for firing a shell that exploded within the Israeli-occupied strategic plateau that Israel took from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War. The howitzer was manned by Syrian troops who have been battling insurgent forces close to the Golan border in recent weeks.
There have been at least eight incidents in which shells or bullets fired from inside Syria have struck on the Israeli side of the border. They caused no casualties or significant damage.
On Sunday, an Israeli tank fired a warning shot at a Syrian battery after a mortar shell landed inside a kibbutz without exploding.
After Israel hit the howitzer position Monday, Israeli soldiers using binoculars observed two Syrian artillerymen being evacuated in an ambulance, apparently wounded.
Until Monday, Israeli officers regarded the cross-border shells as stray fire not intended to hit Israeli targets.
However, a senior official said that Israel is now starting to question that assessment.
“We thought it was spillover, but today we’re not sure,” he said.
Israel retaliated after Syrian troops shelled rebel gunmen in the Syrian village of Bariqa, only a few hundred yards from the Israeli border.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel is trying to determine whether the Syrian fire was intentional.
“We are closely monitoring what is happening and will respond appropriately,” he told foreign ambassadors in a speech Monday. “We will not allow our borders to be violated or our citizens to be fired upon.”
Until its warning shot Sunday, Israel had not fired into Syria since the immediate aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel has been restrained in its response because it does not wish to become embroiled in the Syrian civil war, which has claimed at least 37,000 lives, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that relies on a network of activists inside Syria.
Jerusalem is concerned that Syrian President Bashar Assad might attempt to draw Israel into the conflict to induce the opposition forces to join him in a war against the Jewish state.