Air force downs unidentified aircraft in north amid escalating tensions with Iran

Combat helicopters and jets take out intruding vehicle believed to have crossed Syrian border, IDF says, after series of airstrikes attributed to Israel in Syria

File: An IAF F-15I fighter jet of the 69th squadron takes off from Hatzerim Airbase in southern Israel, during a pilots graduation ceremony, June 22, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: An IAF F-15I fighter jet of the 69th squadron takes off from Hatzerim Airbase in southern Israel, during a pilots graduation ceremony, June 22, 2022. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel/File)

Air force combat helicopters and planes downed an unidentified aircraft that appeared to have crossed into Israeli airspace from Syria on Sunday, the military said.

The incident came amid escalating tensions between Israel and Iran related to Iran’s presence on Israel’s northern border, and after a series of airstrikes attributed to Israel in Syria.

The unidentified aircraft was tracked by the military and “taken down over an open area,” without posing a threat to residents of the area, the IDF said in a statement.

Air raid sirens did not sound at any point during the incident.

Hebrew media said the military believes the aircraft was of Iranian origin.

Around an hour after the incursion, Syrian media reported explosions at an airport near the capital Damascus, but did not blame Israel. Syrian state media generally is quick to attribute airstrikes in the country to Israel and has repeatedly done so in recent weeks.

Tensions in northern Israel have escalated after a series of airstrikes in Syria, a terror attack that is believed to have been carried out by an intruder from Lebanon, and threats between Israeli officials and Iran.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (second from right), during a briefing in the West Bank on April 2, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday warned Iran and the Iranian-backed Lebanese terror group Hezbollah that Israel would not tolerate any efforts to harm the country or its citizens.

“We have tensions on all fronts,” Gallant said in a pre-Passover toast with soldiers in the Etzion Brigade in the West Bank, adding that Iran was attempting to make inroads into the territory.

“The Iranians are extending their outreach to Judea and Samaria and Gaza, and are attempting to entrench themselves in Syria and Lebanon,” Gallant said. “We will not allow the Iranians and Hezbollah to harm us. We have not allowed it in the past, we won’t allow it now, or anytime in the future.”

“If necessary, we will push them out of Syria to where they belong – and that is Iran,” he said.

Also Sunday, an Israeli intelligence and imagery firm, ImageSat International, published images that it said showed damage caused to the Syrian military airport at al-Dabaa near Homs in an alleged airstrike after midnight on Saturday, the second in two days.

ImageSat said the airstrike likely targeted Iranian-backed Hezbollah drone activity, destroying an aircraft shed, a UAV communication station and a communication vehicle. Syria said five soldiers were injured.

This photo released by ImageSat International on April 2, 2023, shows damage to the al-Dabaa airport in Syria after an airstrike attributed to Israel a day earlier. (ImageSat International)

Western intelligence sources told Reuters the strikes hit a series of air bases in central Syria where Iranian personnel are based.

Iran said Sunday that a second member of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had died of injuries sustained in an alleged Israeli airstrike in Syria on Friday. Another IRGC adviser, Milad Heydari, was also killed in the strike.

The IRGC threatened to avenge the incident, saying: “The Zionist regime will undoubtedly receive a response to this crime.”

Some Israeli media outlets reported unattributed assessments that the string of airstrikes in Syria — three in four consecutive nights — could be linked to last month’s suspected Hezbollah bombing near Megiddo in northern Israel, which Jerusalem believes was carried out by a terrorist who crossed the Lebanon border fence using a ladder. One man was seriously wounded in the attack.

While many details of the investigation into the Megiddo bombing are barred from publication, Haaretz cited speculation that the series of airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria could indicate that the IRGC was involved in the latest security incidents.

As a general rule, Israel’s military does not comment on specific strikes in Syria, but it has acknowledged conducting hundreds of sorties over the last decade against Iran-backed groups that have been attempting to gain a foothold in the country.

The IDF says it also attacks arms shipments believed to be bound for those groups, chief among them Hezbollah. Additionally, airstrikes attributed to Israel have repeatedly targeted Syrian air defense systems.

The latest alleged airstrikes came after two attacks in recent weeks against the Aleppo International Airport, also attributed to Israel. Those attacks temporarily closed the airport’s runway. Also this month, Israel carried out a rare daytime strike against targets in northwestern Syria, injuring three soldiers and causing damage, Syria’s SANA news agency said.

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