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Middle East: Syria Seeks International Condemnation, World Leaders Express Concern After Israeli Raid

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Syria late yesterday convened an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council after Israel bombed alleged Palestinian training camps on its territory. Israel justified the attack by saying the air raid was carried out in retaliation for a suicide bomb attack in Haifa that killed 19 people. It also accused Syria of sponsoring terrorism as part of an "axis of terror" that also includes Iran and the Palestinian Authority. World leaders are urging restraint by all parties.

Prague, 6 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Syria is demanding that the international community condemn an Israeli air raid on purported Palestinian training camps near Damascus.

At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, convened yesterday at Damascus's request, Syrian Ambassador Faysal Mekdad said his country sees the attack as direct military aggression against its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

"Thus unwarranted aggression, which constitutes a flagrant breach of the charter of the United Nations and international law and the disengagement agreement signed in 1974 between Syria and Israel, is a clear manifestation of Israeli policy, which is based on aggression and absence of respect for previous agreements," Mekdad said.

On the night of 4 October, Israeli warplanes targeted the Ain al-Saheb camp, about 20 kilometers northwest of Damascus. Syrian officials describe the camp as a settlement area for Palestinian refugees. Palestinian sources report casualties, but there has been no official confirmation so far.

Jerusalem claims Ain al-Saheb is a training base for militants of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, two radical Palestinian groups it blames for a series of deadly bomb attacks against civilian and military targets.

The latest attack against a Jewish-Arab restaurant in the northern port city of Haifa on 4 October killed 19 people and the bomber. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was carried out by a young Palestinian woman whose brother and cousin were killed by the Israeli army in June.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom Israel accuses of showing leniency toward terrorist groups, condemned the Haifa bombing yesterday. "My heart [goes out for the victims of] this terrible attack and big crime which has happened in Haifa against civilians, Arabs and Israelis. There are Jews. There are Christians. There are Muslims. I look to our God to help them. And we hope that all of us will follow up against the dirty job which has been done," Arafat said.

The decision to bomb alleged Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in Syria was made at an emergency meeting of the Israeli cabinet hours after the Haifa bombing.

Speaking to reporters after the raid, Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin -- who is also a senior aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- warned there would be "no immunity and no sanctuary" for radical Palestinian groups wherever they are.

In comments reminiscent of U.S. President George W. Bush's reference to an "axis of evil" encompassing Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, Gissin reiterated accusations against Damascus, alleging it is a center of international terrorism along with Tehran and the Palestinian territories.

"We will not tolerate the continuation of this axis of terror between Tehran, Damascus, and Gaza -- to continue to operate and kill innocent men, women, and children. Therefore, the operation that took place in the early morning today was intended to send that message to Syria, as well as to the leaders of the Islamic Jihad and Hamas," Gissin said.

The Israeli army has in the recent past targeted Syrian military installations in Lebanon, where Damascus is the main power broker, but yesterday's raid was the first attack on Syrian soil in more than 20 years. Long-standing enemies Jerusalem and Damascus are still technically at war over the occupation of the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1981.

At UN headquarters last night, most diplomats spoke out against the Israeli raid. A noticeable exception was U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, who urged Syria to "dismantle the terrorism in its borders." Damascus has always denied any organized links with terrorism.

The State Department said Israel had not advised it about the raid beforehand and said the action could affect the "road map" to peace with the Palestinians.

But Negroponte yesterday rejected the draft resolution presented by Damascus on the grounds that it did not include any reference to the Haifa bombing -- one of the deadliest suicide attacks since the start of the Palestinian uprising three years ago.

"Let us not forget that a suicide bombing took place in Haifa. Nineteen Israelis were killed, including some Arab-Israelis. Fifty more people were wounded. It is just incredible to me that, in the wake of an event like that, a draft resolution coming from a delegation on the [UN Security] Council would have no reference whatsoever to this dastardly act," Negroponte said.

Dan Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, warned Security Council members against lending their support to Syria's draft resolution, saying Damascus deserved "no support for its complicity in murder."

"We call on members of the [UN Security] Council to come to the aid of the victims of terrorism, not their sponsors. Syria deserves no support for its complicity in murder, and the [UN Security] Council would commit an unforgivable act of moral blindness were it to act otherwise," Gillerman said.

The UN Security Council meeting adjourned without a vote. Ambassadors immediately started consulting their respective governments on their next steps.

Western leaders and Arab countries have condemned Israel over the attack and urged both sides to exercise restraint, fearing a new flare-up of violence.

One of the first Western heads of governments to react, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, said yesterday in Cairo that the violation of a third country's sovereignty is "unacceptable." Also yesterday, France and Britain called on Israel to act within the framework of international law, while Russia warned that the raid on Syria could spread the conflict beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories.

In a statement carried today by the official Xinhua news agency, China said it is "shocked" by the Israeli attack.

Speaking to journalists last night in Cairo, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Israel's claims that the raid had been carried out in self-defense are unfounded. "This is a situation that does not conform to international law," he said. "The right of self-defense applies when a state is attacked. But when a country occupies the land of other countries and practices violence and a policy of destruction, it is not possible to consider this self-defense."

In Tehran, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi severely criticized the raid. While avoiding any reference to Israel's claim that Iran is part of an "axis of terror," both men accused Sharon's government of being the main source of instability in the Middle East.

In a clear sign of growing tension in the region, Hamas said it had fired 16 mortar shells at a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip overnight to retaliate against the Israeli raid. It warned it would carry out more attacks in the coming days. There is no immediate report of casualties. The Israeli army is checking the claim.

Arafat has installed a crisis cabinet headed by Prime Minister-designate Ahmad Qurei and decreed a state of emergency throughout the Palestinian territories.

The move is generally interpreted as reflecting the veteran Arab leader's concerns about possible Israeli action against him. Sharon's government has in principle agreed to physically remove Arafat from the Palestinian territories, but has so far refrained from taking concrete steps amid protests from the international community, including the United States. But there were renewed demands in Jerusalem yesterday for immediate action against Arafat following the Haifa bombing.