JERUSALEM -- Israel fired warning shots into Syria on Sunday after an apparently errant mortar shell struck an Israeli military post in the Golan Heights, the latest example of regional spillover from Syria’s civil unrest.
The Syrian mortar caused no damage or injuries, but Israeli military officials have grown increasingly alarmed over how fighting between the Syrian army and Syrian rebel groups has inched closer to the Golan Heights border.
Until Sunday, Israel had restrained itself from responding to the handful of instances in which mortar shells and gunfire struck Israeli settlements or military positions in the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967.
Sunday’s retaliation by Israeli soldiers marked the first such military engagement between Israel and Syria since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel Radio reported that Syrian forces returned fire, though Israeli military officials would not comment on that report.
Last week Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he warned Syrian President Bashar Assad to move the fighting away from the border region. Israel also complained to the United Nations about three Syrian tanks that last month drifted into what it says is a demilitarized zone along the Syrian border.
Though tensions along the normally quiet frontier are rising, Israel is reluctant to get involved in Syria’s unrest, analysts say. Some fear military intervention by Israel -– Syria’s longtime enemy -- could backfire by rallying support around Assad.
“If Israel got involved, it would be good for Bashar since he could say he’s protecting the Arab nation,’’ said Moshe Moaz, a Syria expert at Hebrew University. “But I think both sides are going to be very careful not to be dragged into something that will escalate. If Bashar really upsets Israel, Israel could do something very serious to teach him a lesson.”
In 2007 Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear facility that it feared could be used to develop nuclear weapons. But overt military clashes between the two countries have been rare in recent decades.
The Israeli action underscores how the Syrian conflict is spilling over its borders and, in at least two cases, prompting retaliatory fire from neighbors.
Turkey, which shares a more than 500-mile frontier with Syria, has repeatedly fired retaliatory artillery salvos into Syria in response to Syrian shells landing in Turkish territory.
The Turkish strikes began in October after an apparently errant mortar shell from Syria struck a home in a Turkish border town, killing five people: two women and three children.
Since then, Turkey has had a policy of firing back into Syria when shells from the Syrian side land on Turkish territory. Turkish commanders say they try to target the battery that fired into the Turkish side. There has been no definitive word on Syrian casualties from the Turkish retaliatory fire.
Turkey, though, unlike Israel, has been a major supporter of the Syrian opposition and has been a staging point and logistics center for rebels seeking to overthrow the Syrian government.
-- Edmund Sanders and Patrick J. McDonnell