The condition of a seriously wounded Israeli pilot began to improve Saturday, after he underwent surgery for injuries he sustained while ejecting from his plane over northern Israel, in the midst of a severe confrontation between Israel, Syria, and Iran. The F-16 jet he was piloting took part in Israeli airstrikes in response to an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace from Syria in the early morning hours on Saturday.
The Israeli Air Force said it was investigating what caused the pilots to eject and if the aircraft was hit by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles. If the plane was in fact shot down by enemy fire, it would mark the first such instance for Israel since the 1982 Lebanon War.
Dr. Rafi Beyar, the head of Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, said the pilot was in stable condition after suffering injuries to his chest and abdomen. He said the pilot, who was still unconscious and connected to a respirator, also required blood transfusions.
Beyar said a second pilot, who was lightly injured while abandoning the aircraft, was set to be released from the hospital on Sunday.
President Reuven Rivlin later spoke with the second pilot.
”My heart is with you and your comrades, and I hope that I will meet you soon. You and the entire squadron have proven that you do not come back until your mission is fulfilled, and I thank God together with the entire nation that you have returned,” Rivlin told the pilot, according to his spokesperson.
The jet itself crashed into a field near Kibbutz Harduf in the Jezreel Valley.
The F-16 was one of several scrambled to conduct strikes in Syria early Saturday after an Iranian drone infiltrated Israeli airspace.
Watch: F-16 pilot parachutes down after ejecting from plane
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The army responded with a strike on the drone’s launch site, including a control facility manned by Iranian operators. The military later launched a second wave of raids on a dozen Syrian and Iranian targets inside Syria.
The air force was met with heavy anti-aircraft fire, including multiple missiles. The Syrian response set off multiple warning sirens in Israel.
The exchange of fire was the most serious between Israel and Iran since the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011. It marked the first time Israel publicly acknowledged attacking what it identified as Iranian targets in Syria since the war began.
According to the Israeli military, the confrontation began with the drone entering Israeli airspace before being intercepted by a combat helicopter over the city of Beit Shean, near the Jordanian border.
The military called the infiltration a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty,” and said Iran would be held responsible for its outcome, marking a dramatic escalation in tensions along Israel’s northern border.
The IDF released video footage early Saturday afternoon of the drone’s destruction over Israeli territory, as well as the subsequent IDF strike on its Iranian command vehicle in Syria.
A spokesman for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said the Syrian response was “a clear warning to Israel. The era of Israeli strikes on Syria is over.” He vowed a “relentless response” to “all further aggression.”
A Syrian statement said Israeli jets targeted a drone base in central Syria whose mission is to gather intelligence on IS in the area. It said the station was hit while drones were on regular missions in the country’s desert in Homs province. The statement said it was “a lie and misleading” to say the drone had entered Israel’s airspace.
Military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said the army had information on the drone’s mission, but would not go into details, saying only that it was “on a military mission sent and operated by Iranian military forces.”
He warned that Syria and Iran were “playing with fire,” but stressed that his country was not seeking an escalation.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin were leading operations from army headquarters in Tel Aviv, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding security assessments and approving operations in real time.
By noon Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was convening the top brass at military headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss a further response.
“The IDF is following events and is fully prepared for further action according to decisions and need,” the military said.
Israel has been warning of late of the increased Iranian involvement along its border in Syria and Lebanon. It fears Iran could use Syrian territory to stage attacks, or create a land corridor from Iran to Lebanon that could allow it to transfer weapons more easily to Hezbollah.
The Israeli Cabinet recently held a meeting on the Golan Heights near the border with Syria to highlight new threats, which are attributed to Iran’s growing confidence given Assad’s apparent victory in Syria thanks to their help.
Agencies contributed to this report.