Why Israel's Battle With Iranian Proxy in Syria Is Intensifying

Israel killed at least four Palestinian militants from an alleged Iranian-directed cell on Friday in retaliation for rockets fired into Northern Israel a day earlier, according to an Israeli military official, bringing the Israeli military closer to being in direct conflict with Iran in the already complex war in Syria.

The Israeli military carried out an airstrike on a vehicle holding at least four suspected members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which is funded by Iran as a proxy in both the Gaza Strip and Syria, in response to four rockets being fired into Israel's northern Galilee region.

"We were observing this cell for quite a while and we succeeded in striking them while driving in a car in areas held by Syrian government forces, somewhere between 10km and 15km away from the border with Israel on the Syrian Golan Heights," the military official told Newsweek.

"We struck the car and we understand that four, maybe five were killed, all of the cell which launched rockets yesterday," the source added. "Again, [they were] all under the supervision of the [Iranian] Quds Forces."

The source added that the Israeli military had credible intelligence that suggested that Saeed Izadi, head of the Palestinian department of the Iranian Quds Force, "stands behind" the rocket attacks.

Islamic Jihad's representatives in Gaza denied the group's involvement in the rocket attack on Israel. The group mainly operates in Gaza but its headquarters are located in the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Syrian state TV countered the Israeli military's claims that militants were targeted, saying that the Israeli Defense Forces had targeted a "civilian car", killing five people near a busy market in Kom village.

Prior to Friday's raid, the Israeli military launched its heaviest attacks on targets in Syria since the 1973 Yom Kippur War late Thursday, striking 14 military positions in the Syrian Golan Heights, a border area that has been divided since Israel seized some of the territory in the 1967 war between Israel and neighboring Arab countries. Syrian state TV reported that one soldier was killed and seven more were injured in the raids.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday that Israel was only responding to a provocation and was not looking for an escalation with Syria. "We have no intention of ratcheting up this confrontation, but our policy [of retaliating for attacks against Israeli civilians] remains as it was," he said.

Ron Gilran, vice-president of the Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk consultancy The Levantine Group, says that further conflict across the Israeli-Syrian border is to be expected because of the presence of another Iranian-backed group in Syria, the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

"Looking ahead, as long as there is a Hezbollah presence there, you will see more provocations of this sort," he says.

"Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah said a few months ago that the Golan is a new front for the group and that it's just like southern Lebanon, one front where they think they have the legitimacy to fight Israel," he adds. "I do think, however, that it is not in their interest to start a broad conflict as it would obviously damage their efforts in the civil war."

Iran has been a key financial and military ally to Damascus since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. In 2013, Tehran granted Syria a credit line of $3.6 billion (€3.2 billion), and, in July, Damascus ratified another $1 billion (€890 million) credit line from Iran, Reuters reported.

Last week, the Israeli military staged a large-scale drill to prepare for a potential ground operation into Syria in the event of an attack by Hezbollah, or by other Islamist rebels involved in the Syrian civil war. Israeli military sources believe hundreds of Hezbollah fighters, funded and directed by Tehran, are in the area, and Israel has carried out a number of airstrikes against them this year.

In April, an Israeli aircraft killed three militants attempting to plant a bomb on the Israeli border. No group claimed responsibility for the attempted attack, but an Israeli official told the Times of Israel that Iran—a key sponsor of Hezbollah—was suspected of involvement. The Israeli military released footage of the strike on Sunday.