Hezbollah denial leaves questions hanging over Israeli drone strike
The Israeli navy searches for the remains of a drone shot down on Thursday
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Hezbollah denied sending a drone toward Israel Thursday, several hours after the Jewish state said its fighter jets shot down an unmanned aircraft over the Mediterranean that originated in Lebanon.
Israeli military said its fighter jets intercepted the drone as it was approaching the country’s coast near the northern city of Haifa. The incident forced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s helicopter to make an emergency landing before continuing the flight to the northern village of Julis.
The Israeli military said that the incident was still under investigation.
“Hezbollah denies that it sent any unmanned drone toward the airspace of Occupied Palestine,” the party said in a brief statement.
Hezbollah did claim responsibility for a drone flight in October, saying the craft was Iranian-built and assembled in Lebanon.
Andrea Tenenti, spokesperson for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, said UNIFIL was looking into whether a drone flew over its zone of operations in south Lebanon.
“UNIFIL is probing whether the information saying that a plane has flown over the operation zone of UNIFIL is true or not,” Tenenti told Lebanon’s National News Agency.
Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said it was clear that Hezbollah was behind the incident.
“We’re talking about another attempt by Hezbollah to send an unmanned drone into Israeli territory,” he told Israel’s Army Radio, describing it as “another attempt to destabilize the Middle East.”
Israel would respond to the incident in its own time, he said.
“We are ready and we will react as necessary,” Danon added.
After arriving at the village of Julis, Netanyahu described the incident as dangerous. “I view with great gravity this attempt to violate our border. We will continue to do what is necessary to defend the security of Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu said in a speech after meeting community leaders at the Druze village.
“We will continue to do whatever we must to protect the security of Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu added.
The Hezbollah drone in October drone flew 55 km into southern Israel before being shot down by an F-16.
Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner told reporters Thursday’s drone had been identified moving down the Lebanese coast before reaching Israeli airspace.
“A little after 1 p.m., our aerial defense system identified [a drone] moving from north to south along the coast of Lebanon,” he said. “Aircraft, helicopters and combat airplanes were alerted to the area and after confirmation that it was an unfriendly aircraft, they were approved to shoot it down.”
The military said the drone shot down Thursday was detected in Lebanese skies and intercepted by an F-16 fighter jet 5 nautical miles west of Haifa.
A military spokesman said the unmanned aircraft had been flying at an altitude of about 6,000 feet and had been monitored by Israel for about an hour before it was destroyed by an air-to-air missile.
“We don’t know where the aircraft was coming from and we don’t know where it was actually going,” the spokesman said.
On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel would not permit “sophisticated weapons” to fall into the hands of Hezbollah “or other rogue elements” in Syria’s civil war.
“When they crossed this red line, we acted,” Yaalon said at a news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in comments widely interpreted as confirming reports that an Israeli airstrike in Syria in January had targeted a Hezbollah-bound arms convoy. – with agencies