Israel carried out its second air strike in days on Syria early Sunday, a Western intelligence source said, in an attack that shook Damascus with a series of powerful blasts and drove columns of fire into the night sky.
Israel did not confirm nor deny responsibility.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said, "The State of Israel is protecting its interests and will continue doing so. I am not confirming or denying the reports," the newspaper Haaretz reported.
In an interview with Army Radio, Danon continued, "We have said on various occasions in the past that we will do everything anywhere in order to protect those interests."
Syria accused Israel of striking a military facility just north of the capital, one its jets bombed three months ago. Iran, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime, urged Arab states to resist the Israeli attack.
"The flagrant Israeli attack on armed forces sites in Syria underlines the co-ordination between 'Israel' [and] terrorist groups," the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement reported by the BBC.
"The Israeli attack led to the fall of a number of martyrs and wounded from the ranks of Syrian citizens, and led to widespread destruction in these sites and in the civilian districts near to them."
In an interview with CNN, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad called the attack a “declaration of war” that signaled an alliance between Islamic terrorists and Israel. He added that Syria would retaliate against Israel in its own time and way.
A spokesman for the rebel Free Syria Army, Loay al-Mikdad, stated, according to Haaretz: "We condemn Israeli aggression in Syrian territory, but have no connection to it. … The regime will continue making idle threats like it has done so for 42 years. … The Assad regime is on its way out despite all its efforts to divert attention away."
Egypt and the Arab League, which support the Syrian rebels, condemned the Israeli attack as a violation of international law and Syrian sovereignty.
An Israeli Army official told CNN that two rocket interception batteries have been deployed to northern Israel. Haaretz reported that airspace in the north of country was closed to civilian flights Sunday.
People living near the Jamraya base spoke of explosions over several hours in various places near Damascus, including a town housing senior officials: "Night turned into day," one man told Reuters.
The Western intelligence source told Reuters the operation hit Iranian-supplied missiles headed for Lebanon's Hezbollah, a similar target to the two previous strikes this year, which have been defended as justifiable by Israel's ally the United States:
"In last night's attack, as in the previous one, what was attacked were stores of Fateh-110 missiles that were in transit from Iran to Hezbollah," the intelligence source said. An Israeli official had confirmed a similar raid on Friday. In Lebanon, Hezbollah declined immediate comment.
Video footage uploaded onto the Internet by activists showed a series of explosions. One lit up the skyline of Damascus while another sent up a tower of flames and secondary blasts. Syrian state media accused Israel of attacking in response to Assad's forces' recent successes against rebels who, with Western approval, have been trying to topple him for two years.
In 46 years since a war with a Syria then ruled by Assad's father, Israel has been locked in a cold standoff with Damascus, fought Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 and is threatening to attack Iran, accusing Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. But it is wary of instability in Syria, has long viewed Hezbollah as the more immediate threat and has shown little enthusiasm for U.S. and European calls for Assad's overthrow.
The raid follows intense debate in the United States over whether the use of chemical weapons by Syrian troops might push President Barack Obama to intervene more forcefully on the rebel side, but Western powers remain concerned at the presence of anti-Western Islamist fighters among Assad's opponents. It was unclear whether Israel sought U.S. approval for the action; in the past, officials have indicated that Israel sees a need only to inform Washington once a mission was under way.
At a routine public appearance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made no direct reference to the strikes but spoke pointedly of his responsibility to ensure Israel's future. He maintained a plan to fly to China later in the day, suggesting a confidence that, as with the raid in January, Assad -- and Hezbollah -- would limit any reprisal. But an Israeli military source said the army had deployed more anti-missile defense systems near the northern borders in recent days.
"The sky was red all night. We didn't sleep a single second. The explosions started after midnight and continued through the night," one man told Reuters from Hameh, less than a mile from the Jamraya military research facility. "There were explosions on all sides of my house," he added, saying people hid in basements during the events.
Another witness spoke of fire near Qura al-Assad, a town around 5 km (3 miles) west of Jamraya where many high-level government officials live. In the center of Damascus, people said their first thought was that there was an earthquake.
Identified by Syrian media as the Jamraya military research center, the target was also hit by Israel in another assault on Jan. 30. Jamraya, on the northern approaches to Damascus, is just 15 km (10 miles) from the Lebanese border. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the blasts hit Jamraya as well as a nearby ammunition depot. Other activists said a missile brigade and two Republican Guard battalions may also have been targeted in the heavily militarized area just north of Damascus.