At 8:57 on Tuesday morning, shortly after a Syrian Sukhoi-24 penetrated a half-mile into Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights, the Israel Air Force shot the fighter jet out of the sky. The entire affair, from the moment the decision was made until the two pilots ejected over Syrian soil, took one minute, the IAF said Tuesday.
Its ability to do damage to Israeli sites, and a sort of firm pedagogical approach to the defense of Israel’s borders, led to the decision to shoot down the Syrian jet with a Patriot surface-to-air missile, even though it seemed quite clear that the plane was not streaking toward Tiberias or Tel Aviv.
“We can’t tolerate any sort of violations of Israeli airspace,” said Brig. Gen. (res) Ramm Shmueli, a former head of the IAF’s intelligence wing, in a conference call. The jet, he said, would have been over Israel proper “in 10-20 seconds.” It was potentially one minute from the Sea of Galilee and four minutes from Tel Aviv.
Shmueli said the aircraft was loaded “with armaments,” a statement that the IDF refused to comment on. He added that Israel believes the jet’s “intention was not to attack us,” but rather was a part of the Syrian regime’s battle against the rebel forces, which hide in the shadow of Israel’s military deployment on the Golan Heights. Nonetheless, he said, a “fast airplane, fully loaded with ammunition, can drop this ammunition immediately against Israel, so we can’t take any chances.”
The wind, he said, pulled the pilots and the debris back over the Syrian border.
The last time Israel shot down a Syrian jet was in November 1985, when a formation of Israeli F-15s downed a pair of Syrian MiG-23s. Of late, though, ever since the war in Syria began to take root along the border region, there has been “an increase of tens of percent” in the number of times the air force has had to scramble planes to protect Israeli airspace, the IAF said in a statement.
The IAF added that the decision-making process of shooting down a plane in Israeli airspace is “a regulated and frequently drilled procedure.”
This is assuredly true, but if one is to begin to trace a doctrine that has emerged from Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s 18 months in office it would have to revolve around the clarity of Israel’s declarations and the willingness it has displayed to enforce them.
In the past, such declarations have not been carried out. In 2000, after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, prime minister Ehud Barak reportedly said that if one of the hairs on the heads of one of Israel’s soldiers should fall, “the land of Lebanon will burn.” Several months later, amid the Second Intifada, Hezbollah killed and captured three soldiers along the border and Lebanon remained unsinged.
Prime minister Ariel Sharon promised something similar after the August 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. Shortly thereafter, the rocket fire on Israel’s south began again and the retaliations failed to materialize.
Ya’alon, it would seem, has made it a central pillar of defense policy that Israel will starkly declare its red lines and act in accordance with them, whether the timing is convenient or not. He has made a point of responding to all cross-border fire out of Gaza, even if fired by groups not entirely under Hamas control.
On the Syrian border, he has reportedly ordered several airstrikes within Syria, when the regime has enabled the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, and he has instructed the IDF to respond to all intentional cross-border violence in the Golan Heights and all threats from the regime.
Twice in the last three weeks Israel has shot Syrian aircraft out of the sky. On August 31 the IAF downed a Syrian drone circling over the Quneitra region, apparently collecting intelligence on the rebel positions and clearly crossing into Israeli airspace, according to IDF sources.
Then, too, it seemed certain that the drone was not on a suicide mission inside Israel. But in an era of intense uncertainty, a period during which states have folded and al-Qaeda has taken up positions a few yards from the apple orchards on the Golan Heights, Israel’s position, as dictated by Ya’alon, has been one of the few stabilizing factors.