BEIRUT -- Syria said Tuesday that its forces had destroyed an Israeli vehicle that crossed into Syrian territory from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, an account disputed by Israel, which said that shots were fired at a patrol inside Israeli-controlled territory.
It was the latest in a series of incidents in recent weeks that have raised fears of renewed violence along the cease-fire line between Syria and Israel. Syria has vowed to retaliate the next time Israel attacks its territory, following three reported Israeli airstrikes this year.
Syrian state media reported that the country's military “destroyed” an Israeli vehicle that had crossed the cease-fire line and was headed toward a village, Bir Ajam, that is a stronghold of armed rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
According to the Syrian account, Israel then fired a pair of rockets from its territory toward a Syrian government position. No casualties were reported in the Israeli strike, Syria said.
Syria accused Israel of acting in “direct coordination” with rebel groups in Syria, saying its forces had previously seized an Israeli military vehicle that was being used by rebels in the embattled town of Qusair, which is close to the Lebanese border and far from the Golan Heights.
Israel denied Syria’s account of the incident, saying that an Israel Defense Forces vehicle on patrol in the Golan Heights was lightly damaged by gunfire early Tuesday morning, but that no soldiers were injured.
Israel said it retaliated for the gunfire – the third such incident this week – by firing a missile at the source of the attack.
Over the last year, there have been nearly a dozen incidents of mortars or gunfire spilling over from Syria’s civil war, prompting Israel to respond with missiles on several occasions.
Israel has also been blamed for launching three air strikes against Syrian arms caches near Damascus this year, saying it feared advanced weapons were being transferred by Syria to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Israeli officials say they fear Assad is retaliating for those air strikes by trying to escalate tensions in the Golan Heights. But they warned that Israel would not tolerate further attacks.
“We will not allow the Golan Heights to become a comfortable space for Assad to operate from,” said Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel’s military chief of staff. After touring the site of the attack Tuesday, Gantz said Assad would “bear the consequences.”
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon issued a similar warning: “We do not interfere in the civil war, but we will not allow it to enter our territory.”
The Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967, had been mostly calm for almost four decades before the rebellion in Syria resulted in clashes along the cease-fire line and abductions of United Nations peacekeepers, who patrol the zone under a U.N. mandate.
McDonnell reported from Beirut and Sanders reported from Jerusalem.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun