An Israeli Defense Forces spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, described Tuesday’s attack on the IDF patrol as “the most serious border incident since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.”
Irrespective of the culprits, the choice of targets indicates that Israel holds the Syrian regime responsible for keeping its side of the border quiet.
An explosive device was detonated near the jeep, injuring the soldiers who were out of the vehicle but nearby at the time. The IDF said it had detected suspicious activity along the border prior to the blast.
“The IDF reserves the right to operate in whatever way and time it sees fit in order to protect the citizens of Israel,” an army statement said.
Israel reported the incident to the U.N. Observer Mission in the Golan Heights, an entity established in 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Syria and Israel after the Yom Kippur War the previous year.
The border has been largely quiet over the decades, although in late 2012 a mortar shell fired from Syria landed near an Israeli army post on the Golan. Israel fired warning shots in reply.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that the border had been mostly calm despite the three year-old civil war, but that the recent presence of jihadists and Hezbollah fighters “represents a new threat.”
“We will act forcefully to preserve Israel’s security,” he told a meeting of his Likud party.
Israel potentially faces threats in the area both from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia fighting alongside forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and from jihadists among the rebels fighting the Assad regime.
On several occasions last year Israel launched limited airstrikes on targets inside Syria, targeting Hezbollah-bound weapons shipments. Assad threatened each time to retaliate, but did not do so.
Last month Israel reportedly carried out an airstrike against a suspected Hezbollah weapons convoy in southern Lebanon, and the Shi’ite group vowed to retaliate. Early this month Israeli troops shot two Hezbollah fighters who the IDF said tried to plant a bomb along the Israel-Lebanon border fence.
Hezbollah has a track record of kidnapping, or trying to kidnap, Israeli soldiers near Israel’s border with Lebanon, and some Arabic media outlets – including Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station – speculated that Tuesday’s Golan incident may have been a kidnapping attempt.
In a notorious July 2006 cross-border raid, Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two, triggering a month-long war. The bodies of the kidnapped soldiers were eventually returned to Israel in 2008, in a negotiated exchange for five Lebanese prisoners.