Charly Wegman
Agence France Presse (AFP)
April 4, 2008 - 6:18pm

Israel on Thursday played down media reports of heightened tension along the Syrian border, insisting there was little likelihood of military confrontation between the two countries. "Israel has no intention of attacking Syria, and the latter says only it is ready to respond to any attack, so the risk of a military confrontation is very low," said Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon.

His comments came as some Israeli newspapers splashed front-page stories claiming the military was on high alert after Syria reportedly boosted its deployment near the border and called up reserves.

The Jerusalem Post said that increased tension along the frontier, as well as in the Gaza Strip, led Defense Minister Ehud Barak to cancel a planned visit to Germany, though a spokesman insisted that the decision was linked to a planned home-front defense exercise next week.

Spokesman Shlomo Dror told AFP Syria has staged military maneuvers and made other preparations for possible confrontation in the event that Hizbullah seeks to avenge the February 12 killing in Damascus of its military commander, Imad Mugniyeh, which the resistance blames on Israel.

But Ramon, a close ally of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Hizbullah was well aware that "if they react too strongly, we will also react harshly." 

"I don't know if they will react or not, but we must do everything in our power to thwart such a retaliation and to thwart their ability to avenge," he said during a conference held in Tel Aviv.

Israeli President Shimon Peres accused "radical elements" of seeking to fuel tension between the Jewish state and its northern border.

"Israel said in the past and says today that it seeks peace. We have no intention of attacking Syria," he said. "Syria is sending similar messages but there are radical elements trying to incite and raise tensions." 

The Yediot Ahronot daily claimed there were increasing signs that an attack could take place soon. "And the more these signs accumulate - unusual movements, meetings between various figures, information from all sorts of sources - the more the temperature rises," the paper wrote.

London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper reported on Wednesday that Syria had deployed three armored divisions and nine infantry brigades near the border with Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, fearing an Israeli invasion via that route.

But General Dan Harel, Israel's deputy chief of staff, also dismissed the likelihood of confrontation with Syria.

"Neither of the two parties wants such a conflict," he said.

But he added that Israel would respond with a heavy hand to any attack - a warning top Israeli officials have voiced with increasing regularity over recent days.

"What is certain is that Israel is the most powerful country in the region and that our response to any aggression would be very tough," Harel said.

Hirsh Goodman, of the Institute for National Security Studies, said the situation could easily get out of hand if a war of words escalates.

"Therefore, Israel and Syria are doing what they can to ease the tension," he told AFP.

Ramon stressed that Israel remained interested in holding talks with Damascus, but he did not have high hopes this would be possible soon.

"I believe, unfortunately, that the ability to hold talks with Syria, at least in the near future, is extremely limited if it exists at all," he said in Tel Aviv. "Unfortunately," he added, "that country is deeply anchored in its relations with the axis of evil of Iran and Hizbullah."

The last round of negotiations between the two neighbors, technically at war since 1948, broke down in 2000 over Israel's refusal to return all of the strategic Golan Heights plateau, which Israel seized during the 1967 war.

The reports of increased tension between the two countries coincided with an announcement that Israel will hold a large-scale home-front defense exercise next week featuring scenarios in which chemical and biological missiles hit populated areas.


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