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Israel Hints at Further Attacks on Syria

October 8, 2003

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Bolstered by U.S. support for an airstrike against Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he would not hesitate to attack Israel’s enemies anywhere _ heightening concerns Israel may widen the conflict with the Palestinians by again striking at nations it accuses of harboring terrorists.

``Israel will not be deterred from protecting its citizens and will strike its enemies in every place and in every way,″ Sharon said Tuesday at a memorial for Israeli soldiers killed in the 1973 Mideast war.

Syria’s president said Sunday’s Israeli airstrike would only enhance his country’s power in the Middle East.

The bombing of a training base reportedly used by the militant Islamic Jihad group was the first major Israeli attack on Syrian soil in three decades, and Sharon’s comments implied his government was considering employing such raids as a new way to retaliate for terror attacks.

The attack on Syria led to shooting and mortar fire over the border between Israel and Lebanon, where Syria is the main power broker. The Israeli military raised its state of readiness on the border Tuesday due to the increased tension, it said.

U.S. President George W. Bush said Tuesday the Israeli airstrike was part of an ``essential″ campaign to defend the country, and drew a parallel between U.S. policy on terrorism and Sharon’s actions.

Bush’s supportive remarks, similar to comments he made Monday, came with a caution that Sharon be wary of creating ``the conditions necessary for″ more violence and ``fully understand the consequences of any decision.″

``The decisions he makes to defend (Israel’s) people are valid decisions,″ Bush said. ``We would be doing the same thing.″

Sharon said Israel must prepare ``as if the next war is waiting just around the corner.″

``We are not immune to surprises,″ he said at the memorial service. ``Only if we are forever ready will we reach peace, and we will reach it.″

The airstrike came in response to an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in the Israeli port city of Haifa on Saturday that killed 19 people. Israel has accused Syria of harboring and funding Islamic Jihad, and after the airstrike also named Iran as a key backer of the militant group.

Syria has denied having any Islamic Jihad bases, and Syrian President Bashar Assad said the raid was an Israeli attempt to provoke war.

``There is no doubt that the role Syria plays in the various issues in our region is painful to this (Israeli) government. What happened (on Sunday) was a failed Israeli attempt to undercut this role,″ the London-based newspaper Al Hayat quoted Assad as saying.

``We can, with full confidence, say that what happened will only make Syria’s role more effective and influential in events in the region _ contrary to what this (Israeli) government wants,″ Assad was quoted as saying.

Some within Israel were more critical of the airstrike, fearing it could broaden the conflict to engulf the whole region.

The Israeli daily Haaretz wrote in an editorial that the attack could put Israel on a ``steep and slippery slope″ to increased tensions with Syria.

Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to Washington and a former peace negotiator with Syria, said the raid signaled a sharp escalation in the conflict, and he questioned its wisdom.

``As of now, this was a solitary act _ a sort of signal to Damascus and behind Damascus to Tehran _ that Israel is liable to turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a regional crisis,″ Rabinovich wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot. ``But does Israel really want this? Is Israel willing to step up the battle with Syria?″

Israeli media reports have suggested that more attacks on militants’ bases in Syria could follow.

Israel’s Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday the security Cabinet decided at a meeting Aug. 19 _ following a Hamas bus bombing that killed 23 people _ to target the camp in Syria, but postponed the airstrike for operational reasons. After the suicide bombing Saturday, the army said it was possible to carry out the strike and a group of senior Cabinet ministers approved it, he said.

In the renewed tension on the Lebanon border, Israeli Staff Sgt. David Solomonov, 21, who also held U.S. citizenship, was killed late Monday in a cross-border shooting Israel blamed on the Syrian-backed Hezbollah. Hezbollah, which is also backed by Iran, denied involvement.

Solomonov emigrated to Israel with his parents 13 years ago from Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Consulate. He was to be buried Tuesday in Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv.

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