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Israel fires into Syria for second day, scores 'direct hits'

The  Gaza strip – Israeli border -- a border rarely at peace, is moving closer to war. Mortar fire from Syria hit an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights over the weekend. Israel retaliated by targeting Syrian artillery. NBC's John Ray reports.  

Israel's army fired tank shells into Syria on Monday and scored "direct hits" on “Syrian mobile artillery” in response to a Syrian mortar shell that struck the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, the Israeli military said in a statement.

It was the second time in two days that Israel has responded to what it said was errant Syrian fire. On Sunday the military said it had a fired a "warning shot" across the disengagement line, while on Monday it said it had fired back at "the source".

The Syrian shell landed on Monday in an open area of the Golan Heights without causing any damage or injuries. It was not immediately clear if anyone was hit by the Israeli response.

The strikes on Sunday and Monday were the first direct shots Israel has taken at Syria since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It comes amid increased rocket fire from Gaza over the past few days. 

PhotoBlog: Syrians flee into Turkey after Syrian plane bombs border town

Israel has feared that the instability in Syria over the past 19 months could spill across the border, particularly as President Bashar Assad's grip on power grows increasingly precarious. It 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.

In recent weeks, incidents of errant fire from Syria have multiplied, leading Israel to warn that it holds Syria responsible. Israeli officials believe most of the fire has come from Syrian government forces, although they think it has been inadvertent and not been aimed at Israel.

Israel drawn into Syria conflict, fires missile across 

U.N. complaint
After responding to Sunday's mortar strike, the Israeli military moved quickly to defuse tensions.

"We understand this was a mistake and was not meant to target Israel, and then that is why we fired a warning shot in retaliation," said Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman. Defense officials said an anti-tank missile was fired, and there were no reports of casualties in Syria.

The Israeli military also said it filed a complaint through United Nations forces operating in the area, stating that "fire emanating from Syria into Israel will not be tolerated and shall be responded to with severity."

Ann Curry

Ann Curry photographs Syrian rebels and others affected by the conflict.

Israeli defense officials said the incident was not considered a serious military threat, but Israel felt the need to respond in order to set clear limits for the Syrians.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israeli defense forces have been instructed "to prevent the battles from spilling over into our territory."

Nineteen months of fighting and the mounting chaos engulfing the Assad regime have already shaken the region, spilling into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. The entry of Israel into the fighting would take the violence to a new level. Although Israel has a more powerful military, both countries have air forces and significant arsenals of tanks, missiles and other weapons. Israel is especially concerned about Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons.

An Israeli war on Syria could also draw in Syria's ally, Hezbollah, further destabilizing the region. Hezbollah, which possesses tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, battled Israel to a stalemate during a month-long war in 2006.

Soft-spoken preacher Mouaz al-Khatib is chosen to lead new united Syrian opposition

For Assad, a war with Israel could bring the end of his teetering regime. Israeli officials have said for months that it is only a matter of time before he is ousted.

Thousands have fled violence in Syria in the last 24 hours, with many Syrian refugees now sheltering in Turkish camps. In his latest interview, Syrian President Assad says his army is trying to avoid civilian deaths. NBC's John Ray reports.

Fears of multi-front battle

The Israeli air force has repeatedly demonstrated its superiority over Assad's outdated military, buzzing his residence in one famous instance to protest attacks by Syrian-backed militants and carrying out an airstrike on what the U.S. later said was an unfinished nuclear reactor.

Nonetheless, Israel worries the fall of Assad could have a range of grave consequences.

Officials have repeatedly warned that Assad may attack Israel in a final act of desperation if he fears his days are numbered. Israel also fears Syria could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists or descend into sectarian warfare.

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People resisting the army of President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

The aftermath of Egypt's revolution has provided Israel with reason to worry about its frontier region with Syria: Egypt's Sinai desert on Israel's southern border has turned even more lawless since longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, and Islamic militants are now more easily able to use it as a launching ground for strikes against southern Israel.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet that Israel is "closely monitoring" the border with Syria and is "ready for any development."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement from his New York office that the shelling was reported in the U.N.-monitored zone between Israel and Syria, but no injuries to civilians or U.N. personnel were reported.

Ban called "for the utmost restraint" and urged Syria and Israel to uphold their cease-fire agreement and halt any exchange of fire.

Thousands have fled violence in Syria in the last 24 hours, with many Syrian refugees now sheltering in Turkish camps. In his latest interview, Syrian President Assad says his army is trying to avoid civilian deaths. NBC's John Ray reports.

The violence in Syria has killed more than 36,000 people in the uprising that began in March 2011. Hundreds of thousands have fled the fighting into neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Another 11,000 escaped Friday into Turkey following the surge of fighting at Ras al-Ayn.

Activists reported clashes and shelling in different parts of Syria, killing almost 60 people, nearly two-thirds of them civilians.

The violence spread in most provinces around the country from Diaraa and Quneitra in the south to Idlib and Aleppo in the north to Homs and Hama in the center and Deir el-Zour in the east.

The United States has become increasingly frustrated with the opposition's inability to form a common front and present a single conduit for foreign support.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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