Page last updated at 22:14 GMT, Thursday, 3 April 2008 23:14 UK

Israel calms fears of Syria conflict

By Jon Brain
BBC News, Jerusalem

As Israelis awoke on Thursday they could have been forgiven for believing that another war with one of their Middle Eastern neighbours was both inevitable and imminent.

Israeli toops in the Golan observe Syria (archive)
Israel has warned of dire consequences for anyone threatening it

The newspaper headlines warned of ''heightened tensions'' on the Syrian border.

Syria was ''beefing up its forces'' and calling up its reservists, they said.

In response, the Israeli military is "on high alert". The Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, has also cancelled a scheduled trip to Germany.

A large-scale civil defence exercise will be staged next week and plans have been announced for giving civilians out gas masks which were collected for refurbishment two years' ago.

Against this background, the military's Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj Gen Dan Harel, has given a warning to potential enemies.

"Anyone who tries to harm Israel needs to keep in mind that Israel is the most powerful country in the region and its response will be hard and painful," he said.

Hezbollah threat

So are Israel and Syria squaring up to each other ready for a clash? As so often in the Middle East, the situation is not as straightforward as it appears.

Hezbollah troops stand in front of a picture Imad Mughniyeh (22 February 2008)
Hezbollah has vowed to avenge the death of Imad Mughniyeh in February

Any day now, the Syrian intelligence services are expected to deliver their report into the death of a senior Hezbollah commander, Imad Mughniyeh, in a car bombing in Damascus on 12 February.

The Lebanese Shia movement has accused Israel of being responsible and sworn revenge, saying it is ready for "open war".

If Hezbollah does succeed in carrying out an attack on an Israeli target, Syria knows it in turn could be the target of any reprisals by its neighbour.

So, the apparent bolstering of its forces along the border is almost certainly a defensive move.

However, the timing of all this is being seen as an indication that Hezbollah may have set a date to exact its revenge on behalf of Mughniyeh.

Hence the warnings from the Israel threatening dire consequences for any group or nation that threatens it.

'Low risk'

But having ramped up the rhetoric, Israel's politicians are now attempting to calm it down again.

Gen Gabi Ashkenazi (l) and Ehud Barak (31 March 2008)
Israeli defence chiefs have said they have no intention of attacking Syria

A spokesman for the Israeli government told the BBC that the reports of heightened tensions had been exaggerated by the media and insisted his country had no interest in conflict with Syria.

"Israel is interested only in peace and tranquillity in the north," he said.

Vice-Premier Haim Ramon said Israel had no intention of attacking Syria and that Syria had indicated it had no intention of attacking Israel.

"So the risk of a military confrontation is very low," he explained.

Tensions may remain on the Israel-Syria border, but it seems that, for now at least, neither country is itching for war.

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