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Downed drone represents step forward for Hezbollah, says former air defense officer

UAV, which may have been on a spy mission to Dimona, could not have seen anything that isn’t available on Google Earth, says ex-head of drone unit

Army vehicles and helicopters are seen in an open area as they search for the remains of a drone in the Negev Saturday. (photo credit: AP/Yehuda Lachiani)
Army vehicles and helicopters are seen in an open area as they search for the remains of a drone in the Negev Saturday. (photo credit: AP/Yehuda Lachiani)

If the drone that invaded Israel’s airspace on Saturday was sent by Hezbollah, as military officials suspect, it indicates a significant technological advance for the Lebanon-based terror organization, a former head of Israel’s Air Defense Command said Sunday.

The long-distance control capabilities needed to carry out such a mission are a sign of Hezbollah’s progress, Brig. Gen. (res.) Arye Fishbein said in an interview to Army Radio.

“We are familiar with this aircraft and its capabilities,” Fishbein said. The drone’s range is hundreds of miles, it can reach speeds of 185 to 250 miles per hour, and can carry a payload of 50 to 65 lb, he said: “The payload can be either a camera or a small bomb.”

For Israel’s enemies, he said, the alarm caused to Israelis by such an incident is often worth the loss of equipment.

On Sunday, Israeli officials were still examining the possibility that the drone shot down deep in Israeli territory on Saturday may have been dispatched in a Hezbollah-Iranian operation, and may have been sent to survey the Dimona nuclear site. According to foreign reports, the site houses Israel’s nuclear weapons program.

Benny Lavie, a former commander of the Israeli military’s drone unit, said it was unlikely that the aircraft gathered any significant information. “As far as I understand, this drone could not have collected intelligence that could not be obtained through Google Earth or other methods that are simpler and more easily accessible,” he said in an interview Sunday morning with Channel 10 TV.

The drone reportedly originated in Lebanon, but took a circuitous route through the Mediterranean Sea and around Israeli territorial waters before turning east and flying over Gaza and into Israel, according to reports on Israel Radio and in Maariv.

That route may have been designed to conceal the origin of the unmanned aircraft, or to evade Israeli detection. Nonetheless, the army reported that it began tracking the plane while it was still over the sea and purposely waited to shoot it down over an unpopulated area — the Yatir forest, on the edge of the southern Negev desert.

The drone had spent about 20 minutes in Israeli air space when it was shot down, an Israeli military official said on condition of anonymity in line with protocol.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that Israel views “this incident of attempting to enter Israeli airspace very severely and we will consider our response later.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel “will continue to defend our borders in the sea, on the land and in the air for the security of the citizens of Israel.”

Saturday’s incident was not the first time that Israel has shot down a drone in its airspace, although such cases are very rare.

Hezbollah sent a few such aircraft over Israel over the past decade, with little success. In the 2006 war, the militant group launched two drones capable of carrying explosives into Israel. One was shot down in Lebanese air space and the second over the Israeli city of Haifa. Another drone launched two years earlier crashed in the Mediterranean.

The army has apparently added intercepting drones to its training for a possible war with Hezbollah, according to a report in Haaretz.

It’s not clear if the drone was operating by pre-programmed instructions or if it was controlled remotely from Lebanon. If remote-controlled, the drone would show a level of sophistication the IDF has not believed Hezbollah possesses, according to a report in Ynet.

Hezbollah and Iran both refrained from immediately commenting on the drone’s downing. However a retired Lebanese general told Iran’s state-run Press-TV that the drone could have been an American aircraft accidentally shot down by Israel.

“It is impossible [that it] came from Lebanon and the only possibility [if it came] from the sea is that it was from an American aircraft carrier or from Saudi Arabia, [which also has] American bases,” Maj. Gen. Hisham Jaber told the news outlet.

In an address in August, Hezbollah’s leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said his group has a list of Israeli targets that it can hit with very few rockets. He said a small number of precisely fired missiles on carefully selected targets could “transform the lives of millions of Zionists in occupied Palestine to a real hell,” and spoke of tens of thousands of Israeli fatalities.

Israel has been seeking to encourage the international community to act with more urgency to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive, and has indicated that it might seek to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities if all else fails. Iranian officials have vowed that any Israeli attack would prompt a counter-strike that would be catastrophic for Israel.

Late last month, a top-ranking Iranian general said Israeli preparations to attack Iran could trigger a pre-emptive attack and “World War III.” Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who heads the missile command for the Revolutionary Guards, told the country’s Arabic-language Al-Aram that as things stood now Iran would not attack, but that could change.

“In circumstances in which [the Israelis] have prepared everything for an attack, it is possible that we will make a pre-emptive attack,” he said. “[Israel] cannot imagine our response — and it will sustain heavy damage and that will be a prelude to its obliteration.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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