June 26, 2013 / 12:15 PM / in 6 years

Netanyahu warns Syrian combatants not to attack Israel

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, viewing an Israeli military exercise on the occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday, cautioned warring parties in Syria against any attacks on Israel.

“We are not seeking to challenge anyone, but no one will harm the State of Israel without a response - a strong and resolute response,” he told soldiers who took part in a Golani infantry brigade exercise.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, and stray mortar bombs and gunfire from the Syrian civil war have occasionally struck inside Israeli lines on the plateau, raising concern the conflict could widen.

Israel worries that the Golan could become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by Islamist militants who are among rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Netanyahu has said repeatedly that Israel has no desire to be drawn into the fighting. But in his remarks to the soldiers he noted they were training for “a variety of possibilities”.

“The exercise we are carrying out here is not theoretical,” Netanyahu said, in comments broadcast on Israeli radio. “The reality around us is changing at a tremendously rapid pace. It is volatile and dynamic and we have to be prepared accordingly.”

Israel has conducted at least three air strikes on suspected Syrian depots for arms destined for Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters and its forces have occasionally shelled Syrian positions in response to shooting at the Israeli side of the Golan.

Compounding Israeli concerns, fighting erupted three weeks ago between Assad’s troops and rebels near the armistice line that was set on the Golan in 1974, prompting Austria to announce it would withdraw from a U.N. observer force on the heights.

Austrian troops have long been the core of the force, which has monitored the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire for nearly four decades. U.N. peacekeepers have occasionally been taken hostage by Syrian rebels in recent months, but all have been released.

The Israeli military said the exercise had been planned a year in advance and was part of a regular schedule of drills.

A military spokeswoman gave no further details about the exercise. But Israel’s YNet news site said dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers participated and that the drill was held over several days.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis

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