Israel claims Syria air strike, says hunt for Hezbollah tunnels over



By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged on Sunday Israel’s weekend attack on what he called an Iranian arms cache in Syria, and said it had also completed a hunt for cross-border tunnels dug by Tehran-allied Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

Long wary of publicity around its operations against Iran-linked targets on its northern front, Israel has lifted the veil in recent days — a sign of confidence in a campaign waged amid occasional tensions with Syria’s big-power backer, Russia.

Netanyahu may also be playing up his security credentials as he seeks re-election on April 9. That possibility appeared reinforced by figures he gave on Sunday that went beyond more measured information previously provided by other officials.

“We have been taking action with impressive success to arrest Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria,” Netanyahu told his cabinet in televised remarks. He said this entailed “hundreds” of attacks over the past several years of Syria’s civil war, in which Iran and Hezbollah have backed Damascus against rebels and Islamist insurgents.

Last week, an observer in Netanyahu’s security cabinet, Tzachi Hanegbi, told a local TV station there had been “more than 220” Israeli operations against Iranian targets in Syria.

Confirming a Friday night sortie in Syria, Netanyahu said Israel’s air force had “struck Iran’s warehouses, containing Iranian arms, in Damascus international airport”.

Syrian state media said at the time of the attack that the damage was limited to a hit on a warehouse at Damascus airport.

Netanyahu also cited “the successful completion” of an Israeli search-and-dismantle mission against suspected Hezbollah attack tunnels from Lebanon that was launched in December.

The Israeli military said a sixth and final tunnel was found on Saturday, 55 meters (yards) deep and reaching “a few tens of meters” into Israel from 800 meters within Lebanon.

Hezbollah has not commented on the tunnels, the existence of several of which was confirmed by U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon.

Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006. While they have at times traded blows within Syria and the occupied Golan Heights, the Israel-Lebanon border has mostly been quiet.

Citing intelligence assessments, Israel’s outgoing armed forces chief, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot, told a local TV station on Saturday that Hezbollah had planned to use the tunnels to spirit “between 1,000 and 1,500” guerrillas into Israeli border communities for shock attacks in a future war.

Netanyahu, visiting the northern border later on Sunday, put the number at “between 1,000 and 2,000” Hezbollah fighters.

“Everyone understands how that war might have looked, with Hezbollah regiments in the (Israeli region of the) Galilee and an Iranian army opposite the Golan,” he told reporters.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Catherine Evans)

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