- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 8, 2007

TEL AVIV — An Israeli official said yesterday he doesn’t expect war to break out with Syria, calming tensions after the government’s silence on Syrian accusations of an airspace infiltration by Israeli jets spurred a tide of speculation of a new war in the Middle East.

Culture Minister Raleb Majadele said he doesn’t expect the incident to boil over into violence, and that Israeli jets in the past have violated Syrian airspace.

Just a day before, Israel‘s military said that it wouldn’t merit infiltration accusations by the Syrian government-run media with a response.

But in the year since the end of the Lebanon war, the chances for a flare-up with Syria have grown, leaving observers jumpy about why the government would refuse comment. The Arab League, meanwhile, called the infiltration “unacceptable” and inconsistent with the goal of regional peace.

“On the edge of an explosion,” read the banner headline in the Ma’ariv newspaper. The best-selling Yediot Ahronot proclaimed “an entire country is asking: what really happened yesterday in Syrian airspace?”

Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip, dozens of Palestinians were injured after Hamas security personnel violently broke up Fatah prayer demonstrations. At least 20 required hospital treatment.

Earlier in the week, Hamas’ government in Gaza banned outdoor prayer services in a bid to quash the Fatah demonstrations. Yesterday, Hamas policemen used batons, stun grenades and fired into the air to disperse the demonstrators.

Fatah demonstrators said the behavior of the Hamas policemen resembled Israeli soldiers.

Bilateral chatter between Israel and Syria has swung precariously in recent months between speculation about a renewal of peace negotiations and predictions of a new war over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

“These are not normal times in the Syrian-Israeli military relationship,” said Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of the Web-based opinion forum Bitterlemons.org. “That’s why everyone is on tenterhooks.”

Concerned that Israel’s deterrence was eroded by Hezbollah’s monthlong rocket campaign against northern Israeli towns and cities, officials and analysts have said Syrian President Bashar Assad is more likely to start a military campaign to recover the Golan. Syria, meanwhile, has said it fears it could be the target of an Israeli offensive aimed at restoring the tarnished image of the Israel Defense Forces following the war in Lebanon.

The statements were accompanied by a shift in military deployments on both sides of the border that were interpreted as potentially hostile. While Syria has acquired military hardware to modernize its army, Israel conducted on-camera simulation of battle in Israel.

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