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JERUSALEM: Israel launched its newest air defence system on Monday on the Syrian frontier, where Damascus’s Russian-backed forces have been routing rebels, as Moscow sent envoys for what it called “urgent” talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Israel is on high alert as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regains ground from rebels in the southwest of the country, bringing his forces close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

In a sign of high tensions, Israel launched two David’s Sling interceptor missiles at rockets which it said fell inside Syrian territory and were part of the internal fighting there.

It was Israel’s first operational use of the mid-range David’s Sling, which is jointly manufactured by US firm Raytheon Co. The incident triggered sirens in northern Israel and on the Golan, sending many residents to shelters.

An Israeli source briefed on the David’s Sling activation said the interceptor missiles were launched following an initial assessment that the two incoming Syrian SS-21 rockets would hit the Israeli side of the Golan. When Israeli sensors realised they would land on the Syrian side, David’s Sling was given an abort order for the interceptors to self-destruct in mid-air.

The source requested anonymity as the Israeli military had yet to carry out a formal investigation. Asked if the United States were apprised of the incident, the source said: “I’m sure that will happen in the future, as there are joint interests.” The US Embassy in Jerusalem referred inquiries to the Pentagon, which did not immediately respond.

Israel on Monday rebuffed a Russian offer to keep Iranian forces in Syria at least 100 kilometers from the Golan Heights ceasefire line, an Israeli official said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the issue came up during a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a visiting Russian delegation led by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

The official said that Netanyahu told Lavrov “we will not allow the Iranians to establish themselves even 100 kilometres from the border.” Netanyahu held talks with Putin in Moscow on July 11 amid Israeli concern that Assad, an old foe, may defy a 1974 demilitarisation deal on the Golan or allow his Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies to deploy there.

Syrian state television said on Sunday an Israeli air strike hit a military post in the city of Misyaf in Syria’s Hama province but caused only material damage. The Israeli military declined comment.

Also on Sunday, hundreds of Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers and their families fled advancing government forces and slipped over the border into Jordan with the help of Israeli soldiers and Western powers.

Damascus on Monday condemned the evacuation as a “criminal operation” undertaken by “Israel and its tools”. The Russian embassy in Israel tweeted that the White Helmets were “militants”, linking them with Syria’s Islamist-led insurgents.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2018