Published October 06, 2003
| Associated Press
EIN SAHEB, Syria – A camp that Israeli warplanes struck Sunday was abandoned by Palestinian militants long ago, and for the past decades the valley of olive and fig groves has only been used by picnickers and walkers, residents said.
The airstrike -- which Israel said targeted an Islamic Jihad (search) training base in retaliation for a deadly suicide bombing the day before -- raised condemnations from Syria and Arab nations. Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher (search) warned that Israel's strike could "drag the whole region into a circle of violence."
It was the first Israeli attack so deep into Syria in three decades, and Syrian security forces swiftly cordoned off the area around the camp and barred reporters from nearing the bombing site, 14 miles northwest of Damascus.
The Ein Saheb (search) camp -- which residents said contained two two-story buildings and a huge field surrounded by a fence -- was used for "military" purposes by Palestinian militants, particularly during the 1970s, residents of Ein Mneen, a nearby village, told The Associated Press.
"It is a camp that was closed decades ago," said Kamal, who like other villagers refused to give his full name. "Before today's incident, any person could go into the camp area. We used to take the kids to play in the valley."
Residents say a spring and groves filled with olive and fig trees in the camp are popular for people taking picnics and walks.
"After the explosion I saw lots of ambulances and fire engines heading to the area," said another villager, Talal.
Ahmed Jibril, the head of the radical Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, told the AP that the camp belonged to his group and has been deserted for a long time, though he did not say when or why. Jibril said a civilian guard was injured in the raid.
A journalist who entered a valley in which the targeted camp is located reached the center's red metal gate, where two security men refused to speak about the attack and prevented him from taking photographs. He said he did not see any military presence or damage.
The strike came a day after an Islamic Jihad militant blew herself up in a Haifa restaurant, killing 19 people. Israel claimed the Ein Saheb camp was used as training base by Islamic Jihad, whose leader, Ramadan Shallah, is based in Damascus. Jihad denied on Sunday that it maintains any military or training bases in Syria.
Later Sunday, Shallah told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV that the Israeli attack was "a grave development that exceeded all rules of the game." He also warned Israel that the Haifa bombing "will not be the last resistance operation" committed by his group.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa accused Israel of "aggression" warning that Syria was capable of a "deterring balance to force Israel to review" its action.
In Egypt, the permanent representatives of the 22-member Arab League condemned the Israeli attack during an emergency session Sunday.
"This aggression represents a serious escalation that threatens regional and international security and peace and exposes the deteriorating situation in the region to uncontrollable consequences, which could drag the whole region into violent whirlpool," the pan-Arab body said in a statement issued after their meeting.
Earlier, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa described the attack as an act of "state terrorism" that created a "dangerous issue" requiring consultation between all Arab countries.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the attack was an "aggression on a close country."
Syria and Israel -- fierce foes who remain technically at war -- have fought three major conflicts, in 1948, 1967 and 1973. But since then, the border between them has been calm, as their conflict played out mainly in neighboring Lebanon, where Syria holds sway and backs the anti-Israeli guerrilla movement Hezbollah.
In November 1985, two Israeli warplanes patrolling over Lebanon chased two Syrian jets into Syrian airspace and shot them down. Two years ago, Israeli jets attacked Syrian radars in Lebanon, killing three soldiers, following a Hezbollah attack.
The biggest battle fought between Syria and Israel since the 1973 Arab-Israeli took place in Lebanon during the Jewish state's 1982 invasion of Lebanon when Israeli planes destroyed a score of Syrian SAM-5 batteries in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa valley and shot down more than 80 Syrian warplanes.
Israel is known to have much more advanced weapons than Syria, which is said to have around 380,000 troops on active duty, though it has refused to provide information on its military strength.
Syria obtained most of its weapons from the former Soviet Union, its close ally which provided MiG fighter jets and tanks. But since the collapse of the eastern block in the early 1990's, Syria is believed to have started buying arms from North Korea, China and the former Soviet republic of Belorussia.