JERUSALEM – A missile fired from Syria was launched in southern Israel early Thursday, triggering airstrikes near the country’s top-secret nuclear reactor, the Israeli military said. In response, it said it attacked missile launcher and air defense systems in neighboring Syria.
The incident, which marks some of the most serious violence between Israel and Syria for several years, pointed to potential Iranian involvement.
Iran, which maintains troops and proxies in Syria, has accused Israel of a series of attacks on its nuclear facilities, including sabotage at its Natanz nuclear facility on April 11 and promised revenge. The attack also threatened to complicate US-led attempts to revive the international nuclear deal with Iran.
The Israeli army said it had deployed a missile defense system but could not confirm whether the incoming missile was intercepted, although it said there had been no damage. The air raid sirens were intercepted in Abu Krinat, a village just a few kilometers from Dimona, the Negev desert city where Israel’s nuclear reactor is located.
Explosions heard over Israel could have been the air defense systems.
The Israeli military originally described the weapon as a surface-to-air missile commonly used for air defense against warplanes or other missiles. It could indicate that the Syrian missile had targeted Israeli warplanes, but missed and flew incorrectly. However, Dimona is approximately 185 miles south of Damascus, a long range for a surface-to-air missile.
Syria’s state SANA news agency said four soldiers had been wounded in an Israeli strike near Damascus, which also caused some damage. The agency did not elaborate other than claiming that its air defenses intercepted “most of the enemy’s missiles”, which it said were fired from the Israeli annexed Golan Heights.
There was no immediate allegation of missile attack or comment from Iran.
But on Saturday, Iran’s hardline newspaper Kayhan published a statement from Iranian analyst Sadollah Zarei, suggesting that Israel’s Dimona facility should be targeted after the attack on Natanz. Zarei cited the idea of ”eye for an eye” in his remarks.
Action must be taken “against the nuclear plant in Dimona,” he wrote. “This is because no other action is on the same level as the Natanz incident.”
The Dimona reactor is widely believed to be the core of a black-listed nuclear weapons program. Israel neither confirms nor denies having a nuclear arsenal.
While Kayhan is a small newspaper, its editor-in-chief, Hossein Shariatmadari, was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and has previously been described as an adviser to him.
Zarei has previously demanded retaliatory attacks against Israel. In November, he proposed to Iran to hit the Israeli port city of Haifa because of Israel’s suspected involvement in the assassination of a scientist who founded Iran’s military nuclear program decades earlier. However, Iran did not reciprocate at the time.
Israel and Iran are arch-enemies.
Israel accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons and has opposed US-led efforts to revive the international nuclear deal with Iran. With Israel’s encouragement, then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2018 deal.
Iran recently began enriching a small amount of uranium up to 60 percent purity, the highest level ever for its program, which edges even closer to arms quality levels. However, Iran insists that its program is for peaceful purposes. It has also called for more international control of the Dimona plant.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Israel will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability, and defense officials have acknowledged the preparation of possible offensive missions on Iranian targets. Israel has twice bombed other Mideast nations to target their nuclear programs.
All the events come when Iran negotiates in Vienna with the world powers over the United States, potentially resuming its divided nuclear deal with the world powers. Dealers who have described the talks so far are constructive, although they acknowledge that the Natanz sabotage could strain the talks.
The Israeli government says the agreement will not prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. It also says it does not address Iran’s long-range missile program and its support for hostile agents in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.