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A region on edge: Syrian missile blast near Israel nuclear site underscores military fragility of region

Borzou Daragahi
·3-min read
<p>The missile came within 20 miles of the Dimona nuclear reactor in the southern Israeli Negev desert</p> (AFP/Getty)

The missile came within 20 miles of the Dimona nuclear reactor in the southern Israeli Negev desert

(AFP/Getty)

A pair of military-industrial mishaps that hit Israel in recent days underscored the country’s security vulnerabilities at a particularly sensitive moment in its confrontation with Iran.

Early on Thursday morning, what appeared to be an errant SA-5 ground-to-air missile fired from batteries in Syria exploded in the Negev desert, deep inside Israeli territory and within 20 miles of the Dimona nuclear plant, setting off warning sirens but leading to no damage to life or property.

Less than two days earlier a powerful explosion was seen at the facility of Tomer, a major Israeli defence contractor, during what was described as a rocket-engine test. A video showed a massive mushroom cloud above the blast sight. Tomer officials insisted the explosion was a controlled test, but no announcement was previously made, raising suspicions of an unplanned mishap.

There is no evidence that sabotage caused the Tomer explosion, and few believe that the Syrian government would risk the full wrath of Israel as well as possible radioactive fall out of its own territory by targeting Dimona. “There was no intention of hitting the nuclear reactor in Dimona,” Israeli Defence Forces spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told reporters.

But the mishaps highlight any potential hair-trigger moment in Israel and the Middle East. Israel has upped its aggressive posture against its archrival Iran and its allies in the region at a moment when its main patron, the United States, and many of the world’s leading powers are engaged in intense diplomatic talks aimed at restoring a nuclear deal with Tehran that Israel opposes.

The penetration near Dimona, though almost certainly unintentional, showed Israeli vulnerabilities at a moment when it is seeking to project invincibility.

With immediate suspicions and worries that Iran or one of its allies was behind the missile launch, it also showed how much of a tinderbox the Middle East remains, with the threat of an escalated armed conflict on the precipice.

Iran did little to ease worries. A state broadcaster described the incident as “a first warning” at Dimona that lets Israel know “it is possible to easily destroy” the plant.

Iran’s sensitive Natanz nuclear facility was recently struck by sabotage allegedly at the hands of Israel, prompting it to increase its production of enriched uranium to an unprecedented purity of 60 per cent. Fringe, hardline voices in Iran have called on their leaders to target Dimona in response.

“The appropriate response to the Natanz incident – based on an eye for an eye and based on the policy of creating a security deterrence – should be action against the nuclear facility in Dimona,” a columnist wrote in the hardline Iranian daily Kayhan earlier this week.

The still mysterious incident at Tomer has also played into Iranian propaganda efforts. Iran’s hardline Fars news agency cited recent alleged acts of Israeli sabotage against Iran and suggested they “increase the possibility that the explosion” at Tomer was “intentional”.

Israeli commentators have also questioned how the country’s various air-defence systems, including the vaunted Iron Dome defence shield, failed to shoot down the incoming missile, which travelled some 120 miles from the Syrian border.

Israeli artillery unit deployed next to the Israeli-Syrian border on ThursdayEPA
Israeli artillery unit deployed next to the Israeli-Syrian border on ThursdayEPA

Defence minister Benny Gantz said anti-missile defences tried to intercept the SA-5 but failed. “In most cases, we achieve other results,” he said. “This is a slightly more complex case. We will investigate it and move on.”

According to Israeli news outlets the target that prompted the exchange on Thursday was a shipment of weapons that had arrived from Iran to Damascus.

The long-range SA-5 missile was fired at an Israeli warplane that had conducted a sortie over the Damascus target, wounding four soldiers. The missile set off sirens near Abu Qrenat, between Dimona and Beersheba and near the Ariel Sharon military base nearby.

Israel said it destroyed the battery from which SA-5 had fired the missile.

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