By JOSEF FEDERMAN and KARIN LAUB, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — Israel signaled a return to "business as usual" on Monday, a day after its aircraft struck targets in Syria for the second time in 48 hours in an unprecedented escalation of Israeli involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for a scheduled trip to China late Sunday. Syria and its patron Iran have hinted at possible retribution over the strikes, though the rhetoric in official statements was relatively muted.
Still, the back-to-back airstrikes, though not officially acknowledged by the Israeli government, raised new concerns about a regional war.
Israeli officials have indicated they will keep trying to block what they see as an effort by Iran to send sophisticated weapons to Lebanon's Hezbollah militia ahead of a possible collapse of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
Israel has repeatedly threatened to intervene in the Syrian civil war to stop the transfer of what it calls "game-changing" weapons to Hezbollah, a Syrian-backed group that battled Israel to a stalemate during a monthlong war in 2006.
Since carrying out a lone airstrike in January that reportedly destroyed a shipment of anti-aircraft missiles headed to Hezbollah, Israel had largely stayed on the sidelines. That changed over the weekend with a pair of airstrikes, including an attack near a sprawling military complex close to the Syrian capital of Damascus early Sunday that set off a series of powerful explosions.
A senior Israeli official said both airstrikes targeted shipments of Fateh-110 missiles bound for Hezbollah. The Iranian-made guided missiles can fly deep into Israel and deliver powerful half-ton bombs with pinpoint accuracy. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a covert military operation.
Syria's government called the attacks a "flagrant violation of international law" that has made the Middle East "more dangerous." It also claimed the Israeli strikes proved the Jewish state's links to rebel groups trying to overthrow Assad's regime.
Syria's information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, reading a Cabinet statement after an emergency government meeting, said Syria has the right and duty "to defend its people by all available means."
Tzahi Hanegbi, an Israeli lawmaker who is close to Netanyahu, said Monday that Israel's aim is to "keep advanced weapons from Hezbollah as soon as intentions are exposed and refrain from tension with Syria."
"So if there is activity, then it is only against Hezbollah and not against the Syrian regime," Hanegbi told Israel Radio. "In that context you must see that Israel doesn't officially admit to its operations, and that the prime minister left yesterday for China and (there is) the feeling of business as usual."
Israeli defense officials believe Assad has little desire to open a new front with Israel when he is preoccupied with the survival of his regime. More than 70,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011, and Israeli officials believe it is only a matter of time before Assad is toppled.
Still, Israel was taking precautions. Israel's military deployed two batteries of its Iron Dome rocket defense system to the north of the country Sunday. It described the move as part of "ongoing situational assessments."
Israel says the Iron Dome shot down hundreds of incoming short-range rockets during eight days of fighting against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip last November. Hezbollah fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel during the 2006 war, and Israel believes the group now possesses tens of thousands of rockets and missiles.
The Iron Dome deployment followed a surprise Israeli drill last week in which several thousand reservists simulated conflict in the north. In another possible sign of concern, Israel closed the airspace over northern Israel to civilian flights on Sunday and tightened security at embassies overseas, Israeli media reported. Israeli officials would not confirm either measure.