JERUSALEM - Nearly a month after a mysterious Israeli military airstrike in Syria generated political aftershocks from Washington to North Korea, the Israeli government lifted its official veil of secrecy Tuesday.
It didn't provide much new information about what took place on Sept. 6, however. While its government censor cleared the way for journalists here to report that the incident had taken place, rigid rules remained in effect that ban reporting what the target was, what troops were involved or why the strike was ordered.
Israel lifted its ban on reporting that the attack took place after Syrian President Bashar Assad told the British Broadcasting Corp. that Israeli jets had hit an "unused military building." But Israeli officials refused to say anything about the attack, and almost no one who'd be expected to know - from government officials to former intelligence officers - is talking.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the opposition Likud party, was widely criticized last week after giving a television interview in which he became the first elected leader to say that Israel had launched the attack.
The dearth of information has allowed fertile speculation: The strike was a dry run for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. The target was an Iranian missile cache bound for Hezbollah Islamic fighters in Lebanon. The attack hit a fledgling Syrian-North Korean nuclear weapons program. Or it was meant to thwart efforts to provide Hezbollah with a "dirty bomb" to use against Israel.
This being the Middle East, however, the simplest theories generally are discounted in favor of more convoluted explanations. One of the latest theories is that North Korea told the United States it had sold nuclear technology to Syria, which prompted the U.S. to tell Israel that North Korea had sold nuclear technology to Syria, which prompted Israel to attack the North Korean technology in Syria. Follow?
The problem of separating fact from fiction is compounded by the fact that all sides routinely leak distorted, exaggerated or downright bogus information to conceal the truth and wage psychological warfare on one another.
Assad's first public comments on the strike came the same weekend that the head of an agricultural research facility denied a claim by Syria's deputy president that the farm project had been the strike's target.
"Everything reported about the raid is wrong and is part of a psychological warfare that will not fool Syria," Deputy President Farouq Shara said in Damascus.
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The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that Israel had told the U.S. that Syria was working with North Korea on a nuclear weapons program. The Post reported that the strike came three days after a ship from North Korea arrived in Syria. The ship was said to be carrying cement, but unnamed officials told The Post that it was really military materiel sent to the site hit by the Israeli raid.
U.S. intelligence officials are skeptical of those claims. Syria, they argue, lacks the technical infrastructure and the money for a nuclear weapons program; its leaders may not be reckless enough to pursue one when their country is under constant surveillance and within range of Israel's military; and the North Koreans, who are as closely watched as Syria is, are unlikely partners for a secret program.
That skepticism has given rise to an even more convoluted theory, which in the Middle East has the advantage of suggesting that neither side is telling the truth: The Israelis hit a Syrian chemical-weapons facility, then leaked word that the target was nuclear in an attempt to convince Iran that its nuclear facilities are next.
The timing of the attack is equally curious. Israel staged it at a peak in tensions with Syria. For nearly a year, the Israeli media have been filled with ominous, thinly sourced claims that Syrian forces are preparing for war with Israel.
Israel, meanwhile, had staged major military exercises in the contested Golan Heights, which have generated alarm along the Syrian border.
Israeli leaders wavered between saying that Syria was preparing for war with Israel or was serious about launching peace talks.
Since Israel's war with Hezbollah last summer in Lebanon, Assad has offered to resume peace talks with Israel, which crumbled in 2000. But Israel, presumably with encouragement from the Bush administration, largely has rebuffed the entreaties.
The strike had the potential to sabotage next month's planned Bush administration Middle East peace conference. But the United States has made it clear that it still plans to invite Syria, even though that country is still officially at war with Israel.
© 2007 McClatchy Newspapers