Gantz says Hezbollah drones launched at offshore gas field were ‘products of Iran’

Defense minister vows to increase funding and accelerate development of laser air defense system, set to be shown to Biden during his trip next week

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

A drone which the Israeli military says was launched by the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group, is seen shortly before being intercpted by an Israeli fighter jet over the Mediterranean Sea, July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)
A drone which the Israeli military says was launched by the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group, is seen shortly before being intercpted by an Israeli fighter jet over the Mediterranean Sea, July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday said drones launched by the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group at an Israeli offshore gas field last week were Iranian.

On Saturday, the Israel Defense Forces intercepted three Hezbollah drones heading for the Karish gas field. Hezbollah confirmed it launched the drones after previously threatening the field, which sits in a maritime area that both Lebanon and Israel claim as their own. In another incident last Wednesday, a drone launched by the terror group was downed over Lebanon’s waters.

After Saturday’s incident, parts of the drones were retrieved and taken for examination.

“Hezbollah used drones that were products of Iran during its action against the Karish gas field,” Gantz said in a Hebrew-language briefing to military reporters.

“It should be said that Hezbollah is acting on behalf of Iran, and its weapons are weapons made in Iran, whether they are manufactured there or the knowledge was acquired by [Hezbollah],” he added.

The maritime border dispute between the two nations has been ongoing for several years. Despite US attempts to broker a deal, talks have repeatedly stalled over the issue, although US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein said last week that some progress had been made in recent negotiations.

Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel after a new drilling platform arrived at the gas field a month ago, saying that his organization was capable of preventing work there, including by force.

A sea-based Iron Dome air defense system is seen on a Navy ship, guarding the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Karish gas field, in footage published by the military on July 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Thursday’s briefing was given ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia next week.

During his July 13-17 visit, Biden is slated to be shown Israeli defense systems –including the Arrow, David’s Sling, Iron Dome, and an in-development high-powered laser interception system — at a Defense Ministry display site at the Palmachim airbase, the ministry said.

The ministry has been testing the laser-based defense system for several years, shooting down drones, unguided rockets and anti-tank guided missiles in a series of tests in March.

The Walla news site reported that Jerusalem hopes to partner with Washington on the project, including American investment in further development and deployment of the system.

“We will continue to accelerate the development of the laser, we have invested hundreds of millions in this so far and I intend to bring in a budget increase soon, so that investment will be over half a billion shekels in the near future,” Gantz said Thursday.

Other reports have suggested that Israel intends to ask Biden to approve the delivery of the system to Arab countries aligned against Iran, including Saudi Arabia.

The move would be part of a US-led effort to establish regional cooperation against the threat of Iranian attack drones and missiles. Recent reports have said the parties include the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

Gantz has said Israel was building a regional air defense alliance against Iran, and spoke last week of a possible “breakthrough” during Biden’s upcoming visit to the region.

During his Thursday briefing, Gantz said that since diplomatic ties were normalized between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain two years ago, Israeli defense and military officials have conducted some 150 meetings with their counterparts in the Gulf states.

He said more than $3 billion worth of arms sales to Israel’s new Arab allies were signed during the same period. According to Defense Ministry figures published earlier this year, the UAE and Bahrain account for 7% of the total arms purchases from Israel in 2021.

The ‘Iron Beam’ laser-based air defense system is seen intercepting a target over southern Israel, March 2022. (Defense Ministry)

The ground-based laser system — dubbed Iron Beam — which is being developed with the Rafael weapons manufacturer, is not meant to replace the Iron Dome or Israel’s other air defense systems, but to supplement and complement them, shooting down smaller projectiles and leaving larger ones for the more robust missile-based batteries.

Hundreds of millions of shekels have been allocated to the final development stages and trial phase, in which the system will be placed on the border with the Gaza Strip. It is not clear when the initial deployment will happen.

According to the Defense Ministry, as long as there is a constant source of energy for the laser, there is no risk of ever running out of ammunition. Officials have hailed it as a potential “game-changer” in the battle against projectile attacks.

The downside of a laser system is that it does not function well in low visibility, including heavy cloud cover or other inclement weather. For that reason, the ministry intends to also mount the system on planes, which would help get around this limitation by putting the system above the clouds, though that is still a few more years off, ministry officials have said.

The ‘Iron Beam’ laser-based air defense system is seen during a test in southern Israel, March 2022. (Defense Ministry)

The Lebanese Hezbollah terror group is believed to maintain an arsenal of some 150,000 rockets, missiles, and mortar shells, which the military believes would be used against Israel in a future war.

The two largest terror groups in the Gaza Strip, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, are also each believed to possess thousands of rockets and mortar shells, even after firing upwards of 4,000 projectiles at Israel during last year’s 11-day war.

Israeli military officials have also said they have seen an increase in Iranian use of drone attacks in recent years, dubbing it Iran’s “UAV terror.”

Against these and other threats, Israel operates a multi-tiered air defense array, made up of the short-range Iron Dome, the medium-range David’s Sling, and the long-range Arrow and Patriot systems.

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