Syria said any Israeli air raid near Damascus would have grave consequences, and Hezbollah denounced the alleged attack, but Israel remains silent. Now the media is speculating about what's happening behind the scenes.
Two batteries of Israel's Iron Dome air defense system had been moved from the south, close to the Gaza Strip, to the country's north. The shift was "routine," military sources said. Then came the news of a possible Israeli airstrike against arms being transported near the Syria-Lebanon border. Now Israeli media - and the public at large - have started speculating on what will happen next.
"As an Israeli with children of an age to be called up into army reserve units, I'm really worried," said cameraman Gavri Chefer, who said he had experienced several crises in Israel, adding that tension in northern Israel had always been a reason for concern. "It can lead to an escalation between Hezbollah, Syria and Israel in the blink of an eye. And for a lot of Israelis, including for me, that brings to mind memories of the war in 1973."
However, what exactly happened in the fog of dawn on Wednesday (30.01.2013) remains unclear. According to Syrian reports, the Israeli air force bombed a military research center between the Syrian capital, Damascus, and the Syrian-Lebanese border. The New York Times and other media quoted US security experts saying Israel attacked a shipment of high-tech anti-aircraft missiles that were going to be sent to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. The Israeli government has not commented on the incident.
Fear of chemical weapons
Israel has kept a close eye on Syria's weapons arsenal, particularly chemical weapons. "Israel has a very clear red line when it comes to supplying Hezbollah with modern weapons systems," said Jonathan Spyer, a security expert at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). "It has made very clear how it will react if there should be a transfer of weapons."
Israel fears the ongoing Syrian civil war could create circumstances chaotic enough for some of Syria's large supply of chemical weapons and other modern weapons to fall into the hands of Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Security experts say that should militant groups gain access to chemical weapons, it could change the balance of power in the region.
Talks with US and Russia
Recent days have seen a number of Israeli political and military leaders announce that Israeli would respond militarily if Syria's chemical weapons were destined for Hezbollah. A secret meeting of the Israeli Security Cabinet was held to discuss Syria shortly after Israel's elections, and Israeli media reported that security representatives have been sent to the United States and Russia for secret consultations.
The Israeli government has attempted to stay completely out the Syrian conflict. But in the past few days, the red line concerning chemical and modern weapons systems has been mentioned repeatedly. Israeli media outlets are now speculating over what exactly could have convinced the government to have made good on its threats.
Hezbollah air defenses?
In addition to the transfer of chemical weapons, Israel is also concerned about Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles in the Syrian weapons arsenal, Amos Harel wrote in the daily Ha'aretz.
"That would completely change the rules of the game," agreed IDC security expert Speyer. "Particularly if Hezbollah were to use these anti-aircraft missiles while the Israeli Air Force is flying reconnaissance missions over southern Lebanese airspace. That's what Israel does to see what Hezbollah is up to. It would extremely limit Israel's options."
Israeli media has also been speculating over why the Syrian regime and Hezbollah would choose this moment to attempt such an arms shipment. While experts have said they believe that weapons and other military equipment have been smuggled into Lebanon during Syria's conflict, this incident could show Syrian President Bashar Assad's fears that weapons could land in rebel hands - or that Hezbollah is preparing for the collapse of the Syrian regime.
Israelis buying gas masks
While speculation over the most recent attack differs, media commentators generally agree that it has made the situation neither less dangerous nor easier to handle.
"The fact that in the last 24 hours there has been no military answer from Hezbollah is encouraging," Harel wrote. "But it is hard to foresee whether this reluctance will last."
The Israeli media has also reported that bunkers and siren warning systems have been tested in northern Israel. Demand for gas masks at distribution centers in post offices is also higher than normal.
"In the Middle East what appears unrealistic today can be very different tomorrow," said cameraman Gavri Chefer. "And the situation is dangerous with Mr. Assad, who has his back to the wall. There are many scenarios, but as an Israeli citizen, father and grandfather, I can only say that I am really worried."