An initial Israeli Air Force investigation indicated that Saturday’s F-16 fighter jet crash was caused by explosion of an anti-aircraft missile next to the plane, but not necessarily from a direct hit, the army said.
An army spokesperson stressed that the investigation into the crash is ongoing, but said that the current assessment is that the missile brought down the F-16, known in Israel as a Sufa.
“Even if it was just hit by fragments, that’s still because of the missile,” the army spokesperson said on Sunday.
If the plane were in fact shot down by enemy fire, it could mark the first such instance for Israel since 1982 during the First Lebanon War.
At approximately 4:25 a.m. on Saturday, an Iranian drone from Syria entered Israeli territory from Jordan and was shot down by an Apache attack helicopter near the northern Israeli city of Beit Shean, the army said.
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 Israeli Air Force then conducted a series of reprisal strikes in Syria.
Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, the Israeli Air Force’s second-in-command, said the Israeli planes faced a massive barrage of Syrian anti-aircraft fire, which reportedly included at least four different types of Russian-made air defense systems, specifically the SA-5, SA-17, SA-6 and SA-3.
According to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, the F-16 was hit during the raid. Its two pilots bailed out of the plane, which crashed into a field in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel.
One of the airmen was severely injured, while the second was lightly wounded. The seriously injured pilot’s condition improved throughout the day, but he remained unconscious and connected to a respirator as of Saturday afternoon.
While the Israeli Air Force has developed a reputation for aerial superiority in the region, Saturday’s crash served as a stark reminder of what many Israeli defense officials and analysts have been saying for years: no military system is perfect and unbeatable.
The more advanced Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter jets have a significant advantage over the generally older Russian air defense systems — to say nothing of the F-35 stealth aircraft, which was declared operational in December — but that advantage is not total.
On Saturday, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, a former fighter pilot and head of Military Intelligence, dismissed claims that the downing of the F-16 showed that Israel had lost its air superiority.
“True, sometimes there are loses, or mistakes on our side, but the balance is unequivocal,” Yadlin tweeted.
“Israel demonstrated its abilities to defend its skies; it struck for the first time directly Iranian forces in Syria and exacted a price from Iran; it destroyed many Syrian SAM sites and left Damascus exposed to future attacks,” he said.
1.The cheers in Damascus, Beirut, and Tehran are odd. Even the commentators in Israel who explain that Israel has lost its air superiority are far off the mark. True, sometimes there are loses, or mistakes on our side, but the balance is unequivocal:
— Amos Yadlin (@YadlinAmos) February 10, 2018
In response to the apparent downing of the F-16, the Israeli military conducted another round of strikes, specifically targeting Syrian air defense systems. Then too, Israeli pilots faced significant Syrian anti-aircraft fire, set off multiple warning sirens in northern Israel, sending residents into bomb shelters.
This was for good reason, as Syrian anti-aircraft missile debris rained down across the region, in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.
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.
Watch: F-16 pilot parachutes down after ejecting from plane
— חדשות 13 (@newsisrael13) February 10, 2018
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.
Following the exchange, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement, “Israel wants peace but we will continue to defend ourselves with determination against any attack on us and against any attempt by Iran to entrench itself militarily in Syria or anywhere else.”
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.
Conricus said the drone 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.
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.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the location where the F-16 was hit.