JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday issued a veiled warning to Iran, saying in a Memorial Day speech that his country will defend itself against anyone that tries to harm it.
The premier's remarks on Israel's national day of mourning come amid rising tensions between Israel and Iran over an alleged Israeli airstrike targeting a Syrian air force base last week that left at least four Iranian military personnel dead.
Iran has threatened to retaliate, casting a shadow over Israel's celebration of its 70-year Independence Day celebrations, which were to begin at sundown.
Netanyahu said Israel is "determined to stand strong" in the face of "continued incitement by our neighbors, a great many of whom refuse to come to terms with our existence." He warned that "anyone who raises a hand against us won't be spared."
Israel has repeatedly warned that it will take action to prevent Iran from entrenching its forces in neighboring Syria or transfer strategic arms to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel has carried out numerous airstrikes in Syria, most believed to have targeted suspected arms shipments bound for Hezbollah. But in recent weeks, Israel and its archenemy Iran have moved closer toward open conflict.
In February, Israel shot down what it says was an Iranian drone, launched from Syria, carrying explosives aimed at an Israeli target. Israel responded with airstrikes in Syria, with one warplane shot down, while destroying Syrian anti-aircraft systems at the T4 air base.
Last week, that same base was attacked in an airstrike that Syria, Iran and Russia all blamed on Israel. The Israelis have not commented on the strike, which killed at least four Iranian military personnel, but Iran has vowed revenge.
Earlier on Wednesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Twitter called for "offensive plans against the enemy," without specifically naming Israel. Earlier this week an aide to Khamenei said Iran is capable of destroying Israel and "if you provide an excuse for Iran, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be razed to the ground."
Netanyahu spoke at ceremonies paying respects to fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, hours before Israel was to begin celebrating its 70th anniversary at sundown.
The government is celebrating the country's many economic and cultural accomplishments, while Israelis spend the day with dancing, fireworks, parties and barbecues. But this year's festivities have been tempered by rising tensions along its northern front with Syria and on the southern border with the Gaza Strip.
Israel has fought half a dozen wars with Arab countries since its establishment in 1948, battled two Palestinian uprisings and endured dozens of deadly militant attacks.
Military service is mandatory, and after decades of conflict most Israelis have personally experienced the grief of war or know someone who has. Israel counts 23,646 people who have been killed in wars and terror attacks since the fight for independence began, with 71 new names joining the list this year.