Hezbollah hailed Syria’s air defenses after they reportedly downed an Israeli fighter jet on Saturday, saying it marked the start of a “new strategic era.”
“This is the beginning of a new strategic era which puts an end to the violation of Syrian airspace and territory,” the Lebanese terror group said in a statement published by Lebanon’s ANI news agency.
Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy backing Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s civil war, praised the “vigilance of the Syrian army,” and said it had “bravely blocked Israeli warplanes and downed an F-16.”
It also said the Syrian response marked “a decisive end to old arrangements.”
Hezbollah supporters were celebrating the incident on Saturday across from the Israeli city of Metulla, according to Israeli TV reports.
The statement from Hezbollah came after its allies Iran and Syria denied that an unmanned drone Israel said it shot down violated the Jewish state’s airspace, calling Israeli allegations “lies,” and saying the drone was on a regular mission gathering intelligence on the Islamic State.
The drone incident led to a barrage of Israeli airstrikes on Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria. Syria responded with heavy anti-aircraft fire that set off multiple warning sirens in Israel and managed to down an Israeli F-16 in Israeli territory, seriously wounding a pilot.
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.
Israel said it later targeted at least 12 other sites “including three aerial defense batteries and four Iranian targets that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria,” according to a military statement.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said Syria “has the right to legitimate self-defense. To cover their crimes in the region, Israeli officials are resorting to lies against other countries.”
The deputy chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warned, meanwhile, that his country could “bring hell upon the Zionist regime.”
Brigadier General Hossein Salami refused to confirm to the Tasnim news agency that an Iranian drone had been shot down. “We cannot confirm this report on the drone because Israelis are liars … if Syrians confirm it, Iran will confirm it as well,” said Salami, according to a Reuters translation.
But he warned that Tehran had the capability to destroy all US army bases in the region and to “bring hell upon the Zionist regime.”
A Syrian military official said that his country would continue to respond in kind to all attacks on its soil.
“Our defense systems hit a number of missiles as well as an Israeli aircraft that had been carrying out attacks south of the Damascus capital, to its west and on the outskirts of Homs,” the Syrian official told the Lebanese El Nashra news outlet.
He added that the damage sustained from the Israeli aircraft fire was limited to property, but acknowledged that a number of soldiers had been injured as well.
The Hezbollah-affiliated Al Mayadeen TV station claimed that the Syrian military had managed to intercept 70 percent of the dozens of missiles fired by Israel’s warplanes.
The confrontation was the most serious between Israel and Iran since the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011.
Watch: F-16 pilot parachutes down after ejecting from plane
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Diplomatic sources said Israel has appealed to Russia to intervene and prevent further escalation. Similar calming messages were reportedly passed on to Washington.
IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said Israel held Iran directly responsible for the incident.
“This is a serious Iranian attack on Israeli territory. Iran is dragging the region into an adventure in which it doesn’t know how it will end,” he said in a special statement. “Whoever is responsible for this incident is the one who will pay the price.”
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.