Israel Fires New Missiles As Syria Slams 'Terrorist' White Helmets Evacuation

Israel debuted a new anti-missile system near its northern border Monday as neighboring Syria criticized an international operation to evacuate a rescue group considered by the government and its allies to be complicit in the country's seven-year civil war.

Sirens were reportedly heard across northern Israel and the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli forces identified what they said were two Russian-made OTR-21 Tochka tactical ballistic missiles heading for the Israeli village of Kinneret. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) responded by launching two missiles from its David's Sling missile defense system, destroying one of the interceptors after the OTR-21s changed course mid-flight, while the fate of the second remained unclear, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

"Following the reports of sirens sounding in northern Israel, it was concluded that the rockets were from internal fighting in Syria where they later fell. In response to the threat, the IDF launched 2 David's Sling aerial defense system interceptors. No injuries or damage reported," the Israeli military spokesperson's account wrote on Twitter.

An explosion in Quneitra on the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on July 22. A Russian-brokered deal between rebels and the Syrian government allows the rebels and any civilians choosing to leave Quneitra to travel to opposition-held Idlib in the north of Syria. Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Israel has remained officially neutral in the Syrian conflict, but has offered assistance to rebel groups trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the 2011 uprising, which has been backed by the West, Turkey and regional Sunni monarchies. Israel has also stepped up airstrikes in Syria against targets suspected of being associated with one of Assad's top allies, Iran. Israel and Iran have threatened to destroy each other, and the proliferation of Iran-backed Shiite militias in Syria has compelled Israel to respond with increasingly deadly force.

Assad's other main ally, Russia, has maintained close contacts with Israel. The two have attempted to reach an understanding as to how the Syrian military could complete its retaking of the south from insurgents without sparking a wider conflict with Israel, which remains technically at war with Syria. Their latest conflict, in 1973, was halted by a United Nations truce that Israel has offered to honor now, as the Syrian government retakes the de facto border between the country and the Israel-occupied Golan Heights from rebels and jihadis.

Related: If Russia brings peace to Syria's south, will Israel keep bombing Iran there?

Negotiations that also include the U.S., Jordan and other powers have reportedly involved the removal of Iran-backed forces, such as the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, from border regions. While Israel has not moved to stop the Syrian military's advance, it has continued to launch airstrikes against targets it says were Iranian or Iran-backed, including two attacks last week that were reportedly in response to Syrian drones flying into the Israel-controlled territory.

Syria has often accused Israel of using strikes to safeguard the beleaguered Syrian opposition, while Syria's state television network cited a military source as saying new airstrikes in the Masyaf region of the Hama province Monday were an attempt to distract from government gains in the south. The Syrian government also condemned Israel for its role in the evacuation of hundreds of members of the opposition's Syria Civil Defense, a rescue group better known as the White Helmets.

The White Helmets receive funding from several Western governments and have often been accused by Assad's supporters of being part of an Islamist uprising against him. The Syrian government and its allies have also charged the group with staging evidence linking the Syrian military to war crimes and have alleged that the group has committed its own wartime violations.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry lashed out after it was announced Sunday that Israeli troops had helped hundreds of White Helmets members flee the Syrian military offensive by sneaking them into Jordan with the help of Western governments.

In this still image taken from video provided by the Israeli army on July 22, people walk past Israeli soldiers to board a bus during the evacuation of the White Helmets from the Israel-occupied Golan Heights. Israeli Army Handout/Reuters

"Israel has always claimed that it has nothing to do with the ongoing war against Syria, but the smuggling of hundreds from the terrorist White Helmets organization and leaders of other armed terrorist organizations—in cooperation with the governments of the United States, Britain, Jordan, Germany and Canada—reveals the support presented by these countries to terrorist groups in their aggression against Syrians and their destruction of infrastructure in Syria under false pretenses," a ministry official was quoted as saying by Syria's state television.

"Words of condemnation are not enough to express the discontent felt by all Syrians in regards to these despicable conspiracies and the unlimited support that Western countries, Israel, Jordan presented to the White Helmets organization and gangs of ISIS and Al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations that have worked for eight years in order to divert Syria from its path and destroy the achievements it has realized," the official added.

The Israeli military said that the White Helmets "faced an immediate threat to their lives in Syria" and that it conducted the "life-saving mission" to transfer them "at the request of the U.S., Canada and EU countries." The State Department said the U.S. "welcomes the safe evacuation of more than 400 members of the Syrian Civil Defense, otherwise known as the White Helmets, and their families from southwest Syria." The department thanked Israel, Jordan, the EU, Canada and Germany.

Russia has backed the Syrian government's view, regarding the White Helmets as a pro-West propaganda tool. Moscow's embassy in the Netherlands tweeted: "Definitely there will be less [sic] chances of new so-called #CW [chemical weapons] attacks in Syria after forced evacuation by the collective West of the notorious #WhiteHelmets."