JERUSALEM — An Israeli tank scored "direct hits" Monday on a Syrian army vehicle after a mortar shell landed on Israeli-held territory, the military said, in the first direct confrontation between the countries since the Syrian uprising broke out, sharpening fears that Israel could be drawn into the civil war next door.
Israel has steadfastly tried to avoid getting sucked into the Syrian conflict, but it has grown increasingly worried after a series of mortar shells have struck territory in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights in recent days.
Israeli military officials say they believe the mortar fire is spillover from intense fighting near the frontier between Syrian President Bashar Assad's army and rebel forces trying to oust him, and not an overt attempt to hit the Jewish state. But Israeli officials have begun to question that assessment and are now exploring whether any of the cross-border fire has been intentional.
"We are closely monitoring what is happening and will respond appropriately. We will not allow our borders to be violated or our citizens to be fired upon," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday in a speech to foreign ambassadors.
Syria's civil war also shook the country's northern neighbor, Turkey, on Monday, after a Syrian fighter jet bombed a rebel-held area near the frontier three times, killing more than a dozen people in the town of Ras al-Ayn, a Turkish official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. The official said close to 70 people were brought to Turkey for treatment, where eight more of them died.
Last week Syrian rebels overran three security compounds in Ras al-Ayn and wrestled control of the town, located in Syria's predominantly Kurdish, oil-producing northeastern province of al-Hasaka. A surge of 11,000 more Syrians escaped into Turkey on Friday following the fighting at Ras al-Ayn.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking to reporters in Rome, said Ankara had formally protested the bombings close to the, saying the attacks were endangering Turkey's security, state-run TRT television reported. He said Turkey had also reported the incident to NATO allies and to the United Nations Security Council.
The Syrian jet had not infringed Turkey's border, he said, adding that Turkey would have responded if it had. He did not elaborate.
In recent months, shells fired from Syria have landed on Turkish territory, prompting Turkey's military to retaliate in kind.
But potential Israeli involvement in Syria is a far more explosive prospect. Open hostilities between Israel and Syria could have wide-ranging consequences, dragging in Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla group and perhaps Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip on Israel's southern flank.
Israeli officials have long feared that the embattled Assad might try to draw Israel into the fighting in an act of desperation.
In a statement, the military said Israeli tanks targeted the "source of fire" in Syria after the mortar shell landed in an open area of the Golan Heights. It confirmed "direct hits" on the targets.
Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under army guidelines, said an army vehicle carrying "Syrian mobile artillery" was hit. There was no immediate word on casualties on the Syrian side, but Israeli officials said the vehicle was believed to belong to the Syrian government.
Monday's incident occurred in an area called Tel Hazeka, in the central Golan Heights near the Syrian frontier.
The Syrian Observatory, a Britain-based group that relies on a network of activists on the ground in Syria, said three rebel fighters were killed Monday in clashes with the Syrian army in Bir Ajam, a nearby village.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Britain-based group, said rebels belonging to an Islamist group attacked several Syrian military checkpoints and that government forces fighting back for control of the area.
The state-run news agency SANA has not commented on the fighting in the area or the clash with Israel.
A number of mortar shells have landed in the Golan over the past week, and early this month, Syrian tanks accidentally crossed into a buffer zone along the frontier of the Golan for the first time in nearly 40 years. Israel captured the Golan, a strategic plateau, from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and subsequently annexed it.
Israel responded for the first time on Sunday, firing what it called a "warning shot" into Syria after another mortar shell strayed across the frontier and landed near an Israeli military post. Israel also warned of a tougher response if the attacks persisted.
While Israel appeared eager to calm the situation, its response was a potent reminder of how easily the Syrian civil war — already spilling across borders with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — could explode into a wider regional conflagration.
Israel has little love for Assad, who has provided refuge and support to Israel's bitterest enemies through the years. But the Syrian leader — and his father before him — have kept the frontier quiet for nearly four decades, providing a rare source of stability in the volatile region.
Associated Press writers Suzan Frazer in Ankara, Turkey, and Mehmet Guzel in Ceylanpinar, Turkey, contributed to this report.