US-Israeli tensions spill into the open in closing days of Obama administration

The Obama administration’s long-running frustration with Israel has resulted in a rebuke from the UN and an impassioned speech from Secretary of State John Kerry. But why now, when Obama’s term is coming to an end?

USA Treffen Benjamin Netanjahu & Barack Obama in New York (Reuters/K. Lamarque)

Eight years of tension between two historically staunch allies spilled into the open this week as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his unyielding intransigence to a new level in the closing days of US President Barack Obama’s term in office.

With Obama still in office for three more weeks, the Israeli prime minister sought to do an end-run around him, reaching out to President-elect Donald Trump to try and stave off a UN Security Council resolution that rebuked Israel for its ongoing settlement buildup in the West Bank.

But Netanyahu’s machinations failed and with the United States choosing to abstain from the Security Council resolution, rather than vote against it, Israel received its harshest rebuke from the international body in more than 35 years.

On Tuesday, prominent Israeli newspaper “Haaretz” published a blistering attack on Netanyahu’s sensational breach of protocol.

Watch video01:52

Israel: Netanyahu angry over UN resolution

“Netanyahu doesn’t want anyone interfering as he destroys diplomatic relations with the countries, some friendly to Israel, that ‘dared’ to vote for the resolution declaring the settlements illegal,” the paper wrote.

“The burial of the Foreign Ministry and the abandonment of diplomacy turns out to be part of a broad and dangerous plan to disengage from international law and stop playing by its rules.”

Some time ago Netanyahu effectively dissolved the Foreign Ministry, handling all foreign relations issues out of his prime ministerial office.

Aaron David Miller, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, called the imbroglio “a fitting conclusion to an eight-year soap opera whose personalities fundamentally clashed.”

Miller described the personal relationship between the leaders of the US and Israel as “the most dysfunctional relationship in the past 30 years.”

That dysfunction is driven in part by contrasting personalities – the sagacious Obama against the pugnacious Netanyahu.

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What path to peace?

But beyond personalities, and what appears to be considerable personal enmity, the relationship ultimately floundered over two manifestly opposing views of how, if at all, to move toward a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which in its current iteration has simmered and boiled over in starts and fits since Israel seized the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, during the Six-Day War in 1967.

For more than two decades the conventional wisdom has been that the path to a viable and sustainable peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is a two-state solution. That is, a sovereign Israel and a sovereign Palestine living side-by-side.

Fundamental to this solution is an understanding that Israel would have to vacate many of its West Bank settlements, which would be part of land returned to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu has ostensibly endorsed this idea but in practice has all but ignored it, moving ahead with ongoing settlement constructions in east Jerusalem and the broader West Bank.

Last week’s UN resolution that has so inflamed Netanyahu, the Israeli far-right and, for that matter, a large swathe of the US political arena beholden to Israeli special interest money, calls Israel’s ongoing settlement construction a “flagrant violation” of international law which has “no legal validity.”

The resolution, which has no enforcement mechanism or sanction attached, also calls on Israel to abide by the Geneva Convention with regard to its role as an occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu feels the heat

The UN resolution puts Netanyahu between the proverbial rock and a hard place, according to Miller.

“He is sandwiched between the international pressure for progress towards a peace settlement and Israel’s far-right which is eager for more settlements,” Miller told DW.

“He doesn’t want to be hostage to his own right-wing,” he continued. “This creates significant difficulties for Netanyahu. He can try to restrain the right-wing against further development in the West Bank or he can go with the [international] flow.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry added to the maelstrom on Wednesday, delivering a speech that was essentially unprecedented in both its length and its passion.

For more than 70 minutes, Kerry held court as he made his impassioned case that peace and a two-state solution was not only the morally correct thing to do but that it was, at heart, in Israel’s best interest.

“Rarely has a US foreign policy speech been so long, with such passion, irritation and, at times, anger,” Miller said.

Kerry’s speech was slammed by the Israeli right, as well as many in the US, but German Foreign Minister Frank Walter-Steinmeier praised the US effort, in a statement that was posted on the German ministry’s website.

“It tells us that we must not permit the two‑state solution to become an empty phrase,” Steinmeier said. “And it calls on both sides to clearly demonstrate their commitment to the two‑state solution and to take steps on the ground to underpin this commitment. Together with our partners in the EU, we remain ready to play our part for peace.”

Superpower limits

But why provoke a diplomatic firestorm in the closing days of an administration, without an opportunity to force the issue, and with an incoming administration that appears willing to do Netanyahu’s bidding without question?

Despite the US being the world’s lone superpower, Miller said there are still limits as to what it can achieve on the ground.

“Talking is a lot easier than doing,” he said. “The administration has been reluctant all along to impose sanctions or penalties. There has never been a moment in the past eight years when [they] could have been used to accomplish something positive.”

To say something now, specifically Kerry’s speech,” Miller said, “It frames the issue for posterity – it’s a rhetorical baseline.”

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US and UK expect Yemen ceasefire in coming days

Fighting between Yemen’s exiled government and Houthi rebels who control much of the country could soon end. London and Washington have urged warring parties to declare a ceasefire which they say could start within days.

Großbritannien USA Besuch US-Außenminister John Kerry - Boris Johnson in London (Getty Images/AFP/J. Tallis)

“This is the time to implement a ceasefire unconditionally and then move to the negotiating table,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters after a meeting with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia in London. “We cannot emphasize enough today the urgency of ending the violence in Yemen,” Kerry said, adding he wants to see a truce ”as rapidly as possible, meaning Monday, Tuesday.”

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the UN envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, later reiterated Kerry’s call.

The United States said it wants an unconditional ceasefire to end violence between Iran-backed Houthis and the government, which is supported by the Gulf states.

Saudi Arabia, which supports President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government, began conducting airstrikes in Yemen in March 2015, while the Houthis are allegedly backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition has blamed an airstrike that killed over 140 people at a funeral ceremony in Yemen on “erroneous information” received from a “party” affiliated with the country’s embattled government.

The airstrike, which struck the capital of Sanaa October 8, was one of the deadliest single attacks in the country’s civil war, a UN official said.

jbh/jlw (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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US gives Russia ultimatum to halt Aleppo attacks

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Syrien Zerstörung nach Luftangriff auf Aleppo (Reuters/A. Ismail)

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US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday threatened to end Washington’s engagement with Russia in Syria following a brutal regime offensive against rebels in Aleppo.

“He informed the foreign minister that the United States is making preparations to suspend US-Russia bilateral engagement on Syria … unless Russia takes immediate steps to end the assault on Aleppo and restore the cessation of hostilities,” said US State Department spokesman John Kirby.

Kerry “made clear the United States and its partners hold Russia responsible for this situation, including the use of incendiary and bunker buster bombs in an urban environment, a drastic escalation that puts civilians at risk,” Kirby added.

The US’ top diplomat made Washington’s intentions clear in a telephone call with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, according to the State Department.

More than 250 people have died since government forces backed by Russian airstrikes launched a vicious campaign last week to retake rebel-held eastern Aleppo, according to figures from independent war monitors.

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Russia ready to talk

Shortly after the US comments, the Russian military said in a statement it was “ready to continue joint work with our American partners on the Syrian issue” and send a delegation to Geneva to “relaunch consultations.”

Russia and the United States have exchanged blame for the failure of an early September ceasefire.

If the ceasefire had gone into effect for more than a week, under the terms of the deal the United States and Russia had agreed to coordinate in targeting the “Islamic State” and al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch – something Moscow has proposed for months.

Moscow accused the rebels of breaking the ceasefire and criticized the United States for failing to get Western-backed rebels to distance themselves from the al Qaeda-linked Levant Conquest Front, one of the most powerful rebel groups on the ground.

The United States blames Russia and Syria for the collapse of the ceasefire, as they started a major offensive to retake Aleppo and bombed a humanitarian convoy – charges Moscow denies.

‘Committing war crimes’

UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday described the onslaught on rebel-held Aleppo as worse than a “slaughterhouse.”

“Those using ever more destructive weapons know exactly what they are doing – they know they are committing war crimes,” he said. “Deliberate attacks on hospitals are war crimes. Denying people access to essential health care violates international humanitarian law.”

Earlier Wednesday, airstrikes and shelling destroyed two out of the eight remaining hospitals in rebel-held Aleppo.

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he would put forward a UN Security Council resolution to establish a ceasefire in Aleppo.

“At this very moment, we are proposing to discuss a resolution to obtain a ceasefire in Aleppo,” Ayrault told French lawmakers.

“This resolution will leave everyone facing their responsibilities: Those who don’t vote for it, risk being held responsible for complicity in war crimes,” the French foreign minister added.

London and Washington last week accused Russia of possibly committing war crimes in Aleppo, allegations which Moscow vehemently denies.

More than 300,000 people have been killed and half the population displaced since the conflict erupted in 2011, when government forces launched a bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters calling for President Bashar al-Assad to stepdown.

Watch video01:45

Regime intent on recapturing Aleppo | DW

ls/kms (Reuters, AP, dpa)

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Syria: US tells Russia it will end talks if bombing continues

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A Syrian man checks the damage following an air strike in the rebel-held Ansari district in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on September 23, 2016Image copyrightAFP
Image captionAleppo has come under heavy aerial bombardment since the end of a ceasefire a week ago

US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned his Russian counterpart that Washington will end Syria talks unless Moscow stops the bombing of Aleppo.

In a phone call with Sergei Lavrov, Mr Kerry said the US held Russia responsible for the use of incendiary and bunker bombs against the city.

The US state department said it was making preparations to suspend talks.

Aleppo has come under heavy aerial bombardment since the end of a ceasefire a week ago.

In response to Mr Kerry’s phone call, the Russian Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Evgeny Zagaynov, said the “trend” of Russia being blamed for the attacks in Syria must stop.

“It’s become a sort of unfortunate tradition that the majority of strikes on civilian facilities in Syria, without checking it … is blamed on Damascus or Russia,” he said.

But Moscow said on Wednesday they would send diplomats to Geneva to talk to the US about normalising the situation in Aleppo.

“On orders of the Russian president, we are ready to continue joint work with our American partners on the Syrian issue,” the defence ministry said in a statement.

Some 250,000 people are trapped in the rebel-held east of the city. They are under siege from Russian-backed Syrian government forces, which have launched a fierce campaign to recapture the area. The bombardment has been among the worst in the history of the five-year conflict.

The US has accused Russia of taking part in strikes on civilian targets and possibly committing war crimes.

The two nations have been locked in talks in an attempt to revive a fragile peace agreement, but the US said last week that Russia had openly lied to the UN about its intentions.

‘Living nightmare’

At least 96 children have been killed and 223 injured in eastern Aleppo since Friday, according to the UN children’s agency Unicef.

“The children of Aleppo are trapped in a living nightmare,” said Unicef deputy executive director Justin Forsyth on Wednesday. “There are no words left to describe the suffering they are experiencing.”

More than 170 people have been killed in east Aleppo since the beginning of the recent offensive, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

Air strikes continued to hit Aleppo’s besieged eastern neighbourhoods on Tuesday night. Local medical workers said that two major hospitals were put out of service by the bombardment.

International medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) tweeted to say that both hospitals were out of service. Adham Sahloul, a spokesman for the US-based Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the two hospitals, said the two attacks took place at the same time, suggesting they were deliberately targeted.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon denounced the reported attacks on the two hospitals as “war crimes”.

Addressing crowds in St Peter’s Square in Rome on Wednesday, Pope Francis decried the bombing of Aleppo, saying those responsible for killing civilians would have to answer to God.

Media captionOne quiet moment tells of Aleppo’s despair: Quentin Somerville reports

Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and its commercial and industrial hub, has been divided roughly in two since 2012, with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces controlling the west and rebel factions the east.

In the past year, government troops have gradually broken the deadlock with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian air strikes. Earlier this month, they severed the rebels’ last route into the east and placed its 250,000 residents under siege.

Children in Aleppo have made up a large proportion of casualties from air strikes, according to aid groups. At least 100,000 children remain trapped in the eastern part of the city.

In the government-held west, 49 children were killed by rebel shelling in July alone, the New York Times reports, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On Tuesday, the US pledged to provide an extra $364m (£276m) in humanitarian aid to people affected by the Syrian war.

The World Health Organization (WHO) meanwhile called for the “immediate establishment of humanitarian routes” into Aleppo, where hospitals are running out of supplies and rubble-strewn streets are preventing ambulances from getting through.

Media captionAleppo: Key battleground in Syria’s civil war

Syria conflict: US-Russia plans ‘must be saved’ – Lavrov

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Media captionA baby boy is rescued from the rubble in Aleppo after a second day of heavy bombing, as Quentin Sommerville reports

US and Russian plans to end Syria’s conflict must be saved as there is no alternative, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has told the UN.

He was speaking as the northern city of Aleppo endured a day of relentless air strikes, with the Syrian military determined to retake rebel-held areas.

A seven-day US-Russian brokered truce collapsed on Monday.

Mr Lavrov laid the blame on the US for failing to control the rebel groups it backs.

He said a key condition of the truce was for moderate rebel groups backed by the US to separate themselves from militants.

“Unfortunately the coalition led by the United States, which committed itself to make sure that this separation happens, has not been able to do this,” Mr Lavrov said, although he said his “good friend” Secretary of State John Kerry had indicated this remained the commitment of the United States.

Mr Lavrov said that if the location of militants of the Nusra Front could be pinpointed, he remained convinced a cessation of hostilities and a delivery of humanitarian aid would be possible.

He said it was “now essential to prevent a disruption” of the US-Russia agreements.

Media caption Civil defence volunteer: “Unprecedented targeting” of Aleppo

Mr Lavrov also spoke of a “bleeding Middle East and North Africa”, the result of “arrogant attitudes and feelings of infallibility in pushing unilateral and reckless solutions”.

Mr Kerry said he had met Mr Lavrov earlier in the day and that there was “a little bit of progress” on resolving differences on Syria.

“We’re evaluating some mutual ideas in a constructive way, period,” Mr Kerry said.

But the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent James Robbins in New York says there appears to be little hope of any diplomatic progress and that, with the violence in Syria this week, jaw-jaw has absolutely lost out to war-war.

Air strike aftermath in Aleppo, 23 SeptImage copyrightAFP
Image captionAleppo has endured a day of devastating air strikes
Sergei Lavrov, 23 SeptImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionMr Lavrov blamed the US for failing to back a key condition of the latest truce

The head of a hospital in the rebel-held east told Reuters news agency that 91 people had been killed in Friday’s bombardment.

In between the raids, White Helmet volunteers frantically searched for those trapped in the rubble of demolished buildings, often with bare hands.

Media captionAmateur footage shows burning buildings in Aleppo

One video showed a screaming girl being pulled out alive, another was of a toddler with no signs of life.

“In many areas, the wounded and sick have nowhere to go at all – they are simply left to die,” said Carlos Francisco, Medecins Sans Frontieres head of mission in Syria.

One White Helmet volunteer reported air strikes as he gave an interview to the BBC World Service.

Another rescue worker described what was happening as “annihilation”.

Unicef said that nearly two million people were again without running water after an attack on a pumping station that served the rebel-held east of the city, and the retaliatory shutdown of a station serving the government-controlled west.

The White Helmets said centres set up to help victims of bombardments were being targeted, and three out of four had been put out of action.

Aleppo and surrounding area map

Islamic State and the crisis in Iraq and Syria in maps

Ammar al-Selmo, the head of civil defence in eastern Aleppo, told Reuters that at least 40 buildings had been destroyed.

Activists said both Syrian and Russian warplanes were taking part in the offensive, though Russia has not confirmed its involvement.

Announcing the new offensive on state television late on Thursday, the Syrian government warned Aleppo residents to “stay away” from “terrorist positions”.

Syrian military sources said a ground offensive would follow.

One told Agence France-Presse that the bombardment “could go on for hours or days before the ground operation starts. The timing of the ground operation will depend on the results of the strikes”.

Syria truce: Russia accuses US of failing to abide by deal

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People walk near the Castello Road in Aleppo (14 September 2016)Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionThe withdrawal of government and rebel forces from Aleppo’s Castello Road has been delayed

Russia has accused the United States of failing to fulfil its obligations under the truce agreement in Syria.

A defence ministry statement said Washington was using a “verbal curtain” to hide its reluctance to rein in the rebel groups it supports.

The truce has broadly held since taking effect on Monday although the Russian-backed Syrian army and rebels have accused each other of many violations.

Meanwhile, the UN has warned there is a “problem” with getting aid into Syria.

Special envoy Staffan de Mistura placed responsibility on the Syrian government which, he said, had not yet provided the “facilitation letters” that would allow aid convoys to pass through army checkpoints and reach besieged areas.

“We cannot let days of this reduction of violence be wasted by not moving forward,” he told reporters in Geneva.

The Russian defence ministry insisted that, from the very beginning of the truce, Moscow had been fulfilling its obligations, which includes ensuring that the Syrian air force does not bomb areas held by mainstream rebel forces and setting up checkpoints in divided second city of Aleppo.

Media captionBBC’s Jeremy Bowen visits a soup kitchen in western Aleppo

It therefore said it found “confusing” recent comments by US officials that expressed doubts about whether Russia would be able to deliver.

“Only the Syrian army has been observing the ceasefire regime… while the US-led ‘moderate opposition’ has been increasing the number of shellings of residential quarters,” the ministry statement said.

“Moreover, it appears that the ‘verbal curtain’ of Washington is aimed at hiding the non-fulfilment of the US obligations.”

The US has not reacted to the comments from Moscow, but the state department did acknowledge some incidents “on the part of both the opposition and the Assad regime” were continuing.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands during a press conference following their meeting in Geneva where they discussed the crisis in Syria, 9 September 2016Image copyrightAP
Image captionThe US and Russia, which back opposing sides in the conflict, negotiated the truce agreement

The US, Moscow also added, had not yet compelled rebels to separate themselves on the ground from allied fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a jihadist group known as al-Nusra Front until it formally broke off ties with al-Qaeda in July.

The move is necessary before the US and Russia can start conducting joint air strikes targeting Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and so-called Islamic State (IS).

‘Procedural roadblocks’

The Russian defence ministry also stressed that the Syrian army was ready to pull troops back from the Castello Road in Aleppo to ensure the safe movement of humanitarian convoys.

Mr de Mistura said the creation of a demilitarised zone along the road, which runs around the north of the city into the rebel-held east, was proving complicated.

Aleppo map

Both government and rebel forces are ready to withdraw personnel and weapons at least 500m (1,640ft) away from the road, but they will not begin until they see each other doing the same, according to a monitoring group.

“There is great fear because the regime exploits every opportunity,” Zakaria Malahifji of the Aleppo-based rebel group Fastaqim told Reuters news agency.

Mr de Mistura’s humanitarian adviser, Jan Egeland, is exasperated at the situation.

A boy carries a placard during a demonstration against the Syrian government, calling for aid to reach Aleppo, near the Castello Road (14 September 2016). The placard reads in Arabic: Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionChildren in besieged rebel-held Aleppo called on the government to allow aid deliveries

“Can well-fed grown men please stop putting political, bureaucratic and procedural roadblocks for brave humanitarian workers that are willing to go to serve women, children, wounded civilians in besieged and crossfire areas?” he asked.

Later, Mr Egeland said a convoy of 20 lorries carrying food supplies for the estimated 250,000 people trapped in eastern Aleppo had crossed into the buffer zone between the Turkish-Syrian border and would hopefully arrive on Friday.

The big fear is that if no aid gets through soon, the warring parties will grow impatient, and the fighting will begin, reports the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes in Geneva.

Syrian ceasefire largely holds, aid preparations begin

The truce in Syria continued to hold up on its second day despite reports of minor violations. The Russian government counted 23 breaches of the ceasefire in its first 24 hours, it was reported.

Children in Homs

The truce in Syria, brokered between the United States and Russia, could serve as a precursor for peace talks if it continues to hold up. While having the primary purpose of allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid, the ceasefire also stops Assad’s forces from bombing Syrian opposition groups, raising hopes for the revival of peace talks to address the conflict.

AleppoThe city of Aleppo has been reduced to rubble after months of fighting

The Syrian army said it would abide by the stipulations of the ceasefire for a week, while stressing that it would still defend itself against any acts of aggression and continue attacking Islamist groups, such as the self-styled “Islamic State” (IS). Groups linked to al Qaeda such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which was previously known as the al-Nusra Front, have meanwhile denounced the agreement.

This is why Syria’s largest insurgent groups have expressed doubts about the feasibility of the deal, which still allows for airstrikes against al Qaeda linked militant groups. Several jihadi movements fight alongside more moderate rebels.

A shaky truce

The ceasefire had been hammered out by US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in early September, coming into full effect at sunset on Monday, September 12, marking the beginning of the Muslim high holiday of Eid al-Adha. If it holds for seven days, the US and Russian militaries would set up a new center to coordinate strikes against IS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

The deal marks the second attempt in 2015 to reduce violence in the country following the collapse of a truce at the beginning of the year. The conflict has killed more than 290,000 people since its beginning in 2011 while displacing half of the country’s population.

Violations in Aleppo and beyond

Opposition activists in the city of Aleppo, which has seen heavy fighting in recent months, said that rebel-held parts of the city remained calm. However, aid deliveries, which are also part of the ceasefire, have yet to enter the contested city.

Syrian flagPresident Bashar al-Assad said that he would eventually take back control over all of Syria – despite the ceasefire

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said, however, that 20 UN trucks had left Turkey to deliver humanitarian aid to Aleppo, with another 20 due to leave before the end of the day. Syria’s government warned that all aid going to Aleppo, particularly assistance sent by Turkey, had to be coordinated with Damascus and the United Nations.

Despite the ceasefire appearing to hold up, many people reportedly remained fearful of stepping outside their house on Eid al-Adha. The local activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, reported some shelling in Aleppo as well as in the southern region of Quneitra.

Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in the UK, added that there were violations of the truce in the central Hama province.

Mystery over Israeli aircraft

In other developments, the Syrian military announced that it had allegedly shot down two Israeli aircraft – a warplane and a drone – near the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights, which used to be Syrian territory until 1981. The Israeli military, however, denied the claim.

The Israeli military said that “two surface-to-air missiles were launched from Syria after the mission overnight to target Syrian artillery positions” but that the safety of Israeli planes had not been compromised.

ss/rc (AP, AFP)

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