JERUSALEM: Israel carried out widespread deadly raids against what it said were Iranian targets in Syria on Thursday after rocket fire towards its forces, which it blamed on Iran.

The episode, which marked a sharp escalation between the two enemies, came after weeks of rising tensions and followed US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from a key 2015 Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday, a move Israel had long advocated.

It led to immediate calls for restraint from Russia, France and Germany. “The escalation of the last hours shows us that it’s really about war and peace,” warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The raids that a monitor said killed 23 fighters were one of the largest Israeli military operations in recent years and the biggest such assault on Iranian targets, the military said.

“We hit nearly all the Iranian infrastructure in Syria,” Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told a security conference. “I hope we’ve finished this episode and everyone understood.”

Israel carried out the raids after it said 20 rockets, either Fajr or Grad type, were fired from Syria at its forces in the occupied Golan Heights at around midnight.

It blamed the rocket fire on Iran’s Al-Quds force, adding that Israel’s anti-missile system intercepted four while the rest did not land in its territory. No Israelis were wounded.

If confirmed, the incident would be the first time Iran had sought to directly attack Israeli-controlled territory aside from an alleged attempted drone attack in February.

“We know that comes from the Al-Quds force,” army spokesman Lt Col Jonathan Conricus said, referring to the special forces unit affiliated with Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said dozens of rockets were fired from Syria towards the Israeli-occupied Golan, but did not confirm they were fired by Iranian forces.

It alleged the rockets followed a “first Israeli bombardment on the town of Baath” in Quneitra province.

A senior pro-regime military source in Syria confirmed the salvo of rockets, insisting that Israel had fired first.

Syrian state media reported that Israeli missile strikes had hit military bases as well as an arms depot and a military radar installation, without specifying the locations.

The official SANA news agency added that “dozens of missiles were shot down by anti-aircraft systems in Syrian airspace”, acknowledging a number of missiles had reached their targets.

Israel’s military later confirmed it had carried out the raids, saying some 70 targets had been struck and all of its aircraft had returned safely.

Israel has long warned that it will not accept Iran entrenching itself militarily in neighbouring Syria, where Tehran is supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the country’s seven-year civil war.

Israel has been blamed for a series of recent strikes inside Syria that have killed Iranians, though it did not acknowledge those raids.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2018