BEIRUT: The Israeli army carried out a missile strike on Damascus International Airport on Monday that killed four people, including two Syrian soldiers, according to a human rights monitor.
This is the second time in less than seven months that the Damascus airport has been hit by Israel.
The attack — which occurred around 2:00am (2300 GMT) — put the country’s main airport out of service, according to Syria’s state news agency SANA.
Israel carried out the strike with “barrages of missiles, targeting Damascus International Airport and its surroundings”, a military source told SANA, which reported that two Syrian soldiers were killed.
But the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — which relies on a wide network of sources on the ground in Syria — said a total of four people had died in the early morning attack.
“Four fighters including two Syrian soldiers were killed” by the Israeli strike, Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Observatory, told AFP.
The missiles also hit “positions for Hezbollah and pro-Iranian groups inside the airport and its surroundings, including a weapons warehouse”, Abdul Rahman said.
Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes against its neighbour, targeting government troops as well as allied Iran-backed forces and fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
While Israel rarely comments on specific reports of its attacks, it has repeatedly said it will not allow its archfoe Iran to gain a foothold in Syria.
Monday’s strike comes days after the head of the Israel Defence Forces Operations Directorate, Major General Oded Basiuk, presented the army’s operational outlook for 2023.
“We see that our course of action in Syria is an example of how continuous and persistent military action leads to shaping and influencing the entire region,” said tweets from the IDF on Basiuk’s presentation.
“We will not accept Hezbollah 2.0 in Syria.”
More than a decade of war
The last time the airport was out of service was in June 2022 — also after an Israeli missile strike.
The runway, control tower, three hangars, warehouses and reception rooms were badly damaged in that attack — forcing the airport to close for about two weeks and flights to be suspended.
Just as in Monday’s attack, the Observatory said at the time that the strikes had targeted nearby warehouses used as weapons depots by Iran and Hezbollah.
The conflict in Syria started with the brutal repression of peaceful protests and escalated to pull in foreign powers.
About half a million people have been killed, and the conflict has forced around half of the country’s pre-war population from their homes.
Though hostilities have largely abated in the last three years, sporadic fighting at times breaks out and attacks continue, mainly in the east of the country.
In 2022, Syria experienced its lowest yearly death toll since the conflict started over a decade ago.
At least 3,825 people died in Syria’s war in 2022, according to figures compiled by the Observatory — down from the previous year’s 3,882.
Among those killed in 2022 were 1,627 civilians, including 321 children, the Observatory said.
Two Palestinians killed by Israel in West Bank
In another incident, the Israeli army killed two Palestinians in a West Bank raid on Monday. The army demolished the homes of two Palestinians accused of killing an Israeli soldier, Palestinian officials said.
The Palestinian health ministry announced the deaths of “Mohammad Samer Hoshieh, 22, after being shot in the chest, and Fuad Mohammad Abed, 25, after being shot in the abdomen and thigh” during a raid by the Israeli army near Jenin.
Israeli soldiers had entered the village of Kafr Dan “in order to demolish the residences of the assailants who were involved in the shooting adjacent to the Gilboa (Jalame) Crossing, in which Major Bar Falah was killed,” Israel’s military said.
Clouds of smoke engulfed the small village as two houses were levelled with explosives shortly after sunrise on Monday.
The army later said “a violent riot was instigated” when troops entered the village.
“Rioters burned tyres, shot live fire and hurled rocks, Molotov cocktails and explosive devices at the forces, who responded with riot dispersal means and live fire,” the statement said. “Hits were identified,” it added.
Palestinian news agency Wafa reported that 18 others were arrested by the Israeli army in overnight raids across the West Bank.
Falah, the Israeli major, was killed in September 2022 during clashes with Palestinian gunmen at the Gilboa checkpoint between Israel and the occupied West Bank.
After he was killed, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades — the armed wing of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’ Fatah party — claimed responsibility.
Ahmed Abed, 23, and Abdul Rahman Subhi Abed, 22, whose family homes were demolished Monday, were also killed in the September clashes in which Falah died.
New right-wing government
Israel regularly destroys the homes of individuals it blames for attacks on Israelis.
Human rights activists say Israel’s policy of demolishing the homes of suspected attackers amounts to collective punishment, as it can render non-combatants, including children, homeless.
But Israel says the practice is effective in deterring some Palestinians from carrying out attacks.
The two deaths are the first in the West Bank for 2023.
According to United Nations data, 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians since the 2002-2005 uprising, known as the Second Intifada, with at least 150 Palestinians and 26 Israelis killed across Israel and the West Bank, including Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
The new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most-right wing in Israel’s history, has sparked fears of a military escalation in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.
Two of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners, sworn in on Thursday with the rest of the new government, will take charge of critical powers in the relationship with Palestinians in the West Bank.
Bezalel Smotrich will take charge of Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank, and Itamar Ben-Gvir is the new national security minister with powers over border police, which also operates in the territory.
Both have a history of inflammatory remarks about Palestinians.