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Israeli airforce in 'heightened state of alert' amid Syrian crisis

An Israeli F16 fighter jet on the border with Syria. Photo: ITV News

I’d planned to ask the Israeli air force commander to describe the heightened tension along the border with Syria. As it turned out, he didn’t need to answer.

We had just set up our camera when a deafening siren sounded and pilots raced to their aircraft. Within a few moments, F16 aircraft thundered down the runway.

"It’s the kind of thing happening more and more," one of our uniformed escorts explained.

We’d been invited to an Israeli base in the north of the country. It’s a rare opportunity. The Israelis clearly wanted to make a public point.

For an F16, the base is a two minute flight from the Golan Heights - the disputed ground that separates Israel and Syria. It is also closer to war than for decades.

An Israeli pilot on an F16 fighter jet. Credit: ITV News

"We have for forty years been training for this exact moment. And we are ready for anything," said a pilot I can identify under Israeli military rules only as "Major L"

A series of mighty airstrikes, apparently on weapons convoys heading from Syria towards President Assad’s allies in the Hezbollah militia, has shattered the fragile truce that has existed along the border since 1973.

The pilots at the base aren’t permitted to talk about the attacks. Officially, Israeli will not acknowledge responsibility.

"We are searching for peace, but preparing for war,’’ is all Pilot L is will say. I ask him if he was already flown missions across the border. He shakes his head slowly: No comment.

But Israel’s leaders have said loud and long they will use whatever force is necessary to stop Hezbollah – their countries sworn enemies - gaining advanced armaments from Syria.

The view from inside the F1 fighter plane, flying in the north of Israel. Credit: ITV News

"We don't know what will come the day after Assad,’’ explains a second officer, 'Commander M.’ "It could be that weapons that are pointed internally in Syria at the moment might be pointed at us in the future and that's what we need to be ready for."

Three times Israel has attacked. After the last time, in May, President Assad was finally moved to threaten retaliation in the event of a fourth.

This presents Israel with a dilemma and the world with a very obvious danger of escalation.

"We might be close to exhausting the number of opportunities we have to launch strikes into Syria without generating a response,’’ says Alon Ben-David, senior defence correspondent with Israel’s Channel 10.

An Israeli pilot checks the engine of an F1 fighter jet. Credit: ITV News

"So if there is a next time - and I believe there will be a next time, perhaps very soon - Israel will have to count to a hundred before it decides to take action.’’

The next time would certainly arrive if Russia fulfills what it calls an existing order from Syria for S300 air defence missiles.

It’s a sophisticated system with a range to threaten Israel’s international airport near Tel Aviv. Israel says it will destroy them before they become operational in Syrian hands, never mind allowing them to transfer to Hezbollah.

So far, Russia has held off, but Israel fears an arms race. It is just about comfortable with the US shipping rifles and ammunition to the rebels, but not much more.

For the past four days, Israeli troops, sailors and airmen have been taking part in a massive military exercise in the north. We’re told it’s a routine war game. But the message is again clear.

Until now, Israel has counted on its vastly superior forces acting as a deterrent. For Assad to look for confrontation with his southern neighbour would be to sign a suicide note for his regime.

But in times of crisis, calculations that once held good can break down.

"It might be reasons of pride, or dignity, or strategy he turns the civil war into an Arab-Israeli conflict,‘’ says Ben-David.

Then we would be going into a new game and we don’t know how it ends. Both sides could be dragged into a war they didn’t intend.

At the airbase, the F16s we watched take off a few minutes earlier are soon safely returned. A false alarm, this time.

But the warning signs are real enough.