JERUSALEM – Israel dispatched several fighter jets toward its border with Syria after a Syrian aircraft disappeared from Israeli air force radar screens, Israeli military officials said Sunday, reflecting the state of heightened tensions between the two sides over a reported Israeli air strike in Syria earlier this month.
The Israeli jets, which did not enter Syrian airspace, returned to their bases minutes later when it became clear the Syrian airplane had crashed. The incident took place on Saturday, which was Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday, when Israel's air force does not send any fighter craft into the air unless absolutely necessary.
The day also marked, according to the Jewish calendar, the 34th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1973 Mideast war, when the armies of Syria and Egypt launched a sneak attack on Israel on the holiday.
The Israeli army did not comment on Saturday's incident. The officials who spoke to The Associated Press did so on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss classified military information with the media.
On Thursday, Israeli fighter jets were dispatched to the northern Golan Heights, along the border with Syria, when "suspicious activity" was reported in the area, the military officials said. Later it was discovered that the objects were migrating birds, the officials said.
Great numbers of migrating birds can look like drones on air force radar screens, the officials said.
Tensions between Israel and Syria heated up this month over reports of an Israeli airstrike in northern Syria on Sept.6. Foreign media say the Israeli target was either arms meant for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon or a joint Syrian-North Korean nuclear project. Syria has denied both but announced an incursion, but Israel has refused to comment.
Israel considers Syria one of its greatest enemies and accuses Damascus of backing the militant organizations Hamas and Hezbollah, which has bases there. Despite the recent tensions, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week called for the reopening of peace talks, without conditions, between the two adversaries.
Past negotiations broke down over Syria's demand for the return of the Golan, a strategic plateau Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel offered to go back to the international border, but Syria insisted on also controlling another small strip of territory — the east bank of the Sea of Galilee, which Israel captured during the 1948-49 war that accompanied its creation.
Talks also faltered over the extent of peaceful relations Syria would offer.