Revealing a secret airstrike, Israel sends message to 'enemies'

After more than a decade, Israel claims airstrike on Syrian nuclear facility.

March 21, 2018, 3:28 PM

LONDON -- Breaking more than a decade of silence, the Israeli military announced Wednesday that it had carried out an airstrike in northeastern Syria back in 2007, destroying the Syrian government’s nuclear reactor.

The airstrike inside Syria on Sept. 6, 2007, codenamed “Outside the Box,” was one of Israel’s most closely held secrets.

At the time, Syria accused Israel of invading its airspace, and it was widely reported that Israel was believed to be behind the airstrikes, but there was never any official confirmation until today.

“I don’t think anyone needed the censorship approval to know that Israel was behind the attack on the reactor or to think that Israel is not determined to strike Iranian or Hezbollah forces,” Dr. Ronen Bergman, a senior correspondent for Military and Intelligence Affairs for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, told reporters Wednesday.

Bergman said even without mentioning Iran by name, today’s message was clear.

“The message is: When Israel is left alone, it will react as it reacted and used force 11 years ago and destroyed the North Korean facility,” added Bergman. In the years before the strike, the military statement said, Israel got information that foreign experts and North Korea were helping Syria build a reactor to manufacture plutonium.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said today that “the motivation of our enemies has grown in recent years, but so too the might of the Israeli military. Everyone in the Middle East would do well to internalize this equation."

Twelve hours after the lengthy military release, Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu released a short statement.

"The government of Israel, the [Israel Defense Forces] and the Mossad [Israeli intelligence agency] prevented Syria from developing a nuclear capability,” he said. “For this, they are deserving of all praise. Israel's policy has been and remains consistent -- to prevent our enemies from arming themselves with nuclear weapons."

In Wednesday’s release, Military Chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot struck the same note.

"The message from the 2007 attack on the reactor is that Israel will not tolerate construction that can pose an existential threat,” Eisenkot said. “This was the message in 1981, this is the message in 2007, and this is the future message to our enemies."

Early Wednesday morning, the Israeli military revealed that eight F-15 fighter jets carried out the airstrikes against the facility in Syria's Deir Ezzour region, about 300 miles northeast of Damascus, destroying a site that was scheduled to go into operation at the end of that year.

The military said the F-15s took off from two bases in southern Israel at 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 5 and returned four hours later.

Israeli media are also discussing the possibility that today’s disclosure is related to the upcoming publication of memoirs by both former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his bitter rival and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Both will be on shelves this spring, and both will reportedly publish conflicting versions of the night of one of Israel's most successful military operations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. ABC News' Bruno Nota reported from Jerusalem and Molly Hunter reported from London.

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