Israel secretly warned Syria about Hezbollah

( Reuter )- Israel recently conveyed a warning to Syria through a third party that it would hold Damascus accountable if Lebanese Hezbollah launched attacks on the Jewish state, Israeli and European sources said on Friday.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the warning stemmed largely from Israeli concerns that Hezbollah would launch salvoes of cross-border rockets to coincide with any major Israeli offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The sources said the message was conveyed in February through at least one European intermediary following the assassination of a top Hezbollah commander and before this month's five-day Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip in which more than 120 Palestinians, many of them civilians, were killed.

After the group's senior commander, Imad Moughniyah, was killed in a bombing in Damascus, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel with "open war".

Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah and its main backer, Iran, accused Israel of being behind the assassination, a charge Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office denied in a rare public statement.

A European source familiar with the matter said the message conveyed to Damascus said Syria could be targeted by Israel even if Hezbollah's attack emanated from Lebanese soil.

An Israeli source with knowledge of government affairs said: "The message was passed around late February, before the last round of fighting in Gaza."

"It has become clear to us Syria has to understand there is a price for its use of proxy terrorism, especially as Damascus is itself a proxy -- the long-arm of Iran," the source said.

Another senior Israeli government official with knowledge of defense affairs declined comment on whether a message was sent to Damascus, but told Reuters: "This is sound strategy. Syria has significantly deepened its involvement with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon since the war."

Asked about the risk of an Israeli attack on Syria in response to a Hezbollah attack, a British official said: "There is always a danger that a turn of events here could prompt something on the northern border, which would be a disaster."

"The death of Moughniyah, the threatened Hezbollah retaliation does leave a specter of a wider regional conflict," the official said, playing down the chances of opening an Israeli-Syrian peace track under the circumstances.

"There's an interest on both sides but I think it's very difficult to move forward on it," the official said, citing close ties between Syria and Iran. "It's become far more difficult the idea of an Israeli-Syrian deal."

Since the end of Israel's five-day Gaza offensive, Egypt has stepped up efforts aimed at brokering a ceasefire between Israel and militants in the coastal enclave. A lull in rocket fire lasted several days but tensions flared up against after Israel killed several militants in the occupied West Bank.

Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war in 2006 after the guerrilla group captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

During the fighting, the Israeli military failed to crush Hezbollah or stop the Iranian- and Syrian-backed militant group from firing some 4,000 rockets into northern Israel, attacks that forced a million residents into shelters.

Nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon, mainly civilians, and 157 Israelis, mostly soldiers, died during the conflict.

After the war, Olmert sent messages to Syria, expressing interest in restarting peace talks but stressing that Damascus must first signal a break with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Tensions flared between the neighbors when the Israeli air force carried out a strike inside Syrian territory on September 6. Some U.S. officials linked the raid to suspicions of secret nuclear cooperation between Syria and North Korea. Damascus and Pyongyang denied any nuclear ties.

Negotiations between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000 without resolving the fate of the Golan Heights, a plateau occupied by Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War and annexed in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally.

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