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IDF probing why air defenses didn’t intercept Syrian anti-aircraft missile

Incoming projectile exploded in mid-air overnight, sending debris crashing down in southern Israel; reverberations of an explosion were felt in central Israel, Jerusalem

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

An SA-5 interceptor missile on display at the Ukrainian Air Force Museum. (George Chernilevsky/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)
An SA-5 interceptor missile on display at the Ukrainian Air Force Museum. (George Chernilevsky/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Israel Defense Forces launched an investigation to determine why its air defenses failed to intercept an errant surface-to-air missile fired from Syria that landed in southern Israel on Thursday morning.

The Syrian missile exploded in mid-air, sending fragments crashing down, with pieces landing in the community of Ashalim, some 40 kilometers from the nuclear reactor in Dimona, without causing injuries or significant damage.

“The IDF worked to prevent a potential strike on critical assets in the State of Israel. A SA-5-model of surface-to-air missile was fired, passed through the area. There was an attempt to intercept it, which did not succeed. We are still investigating the event,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said at a press conference in Tel Aviv.

“Normally we see different outcomes,” Gantz added.

Shortly after 1:30 a.m. on Thursday, Israeli fighter jets conducted a series of airstrikes on targets in the Syrian Golan. In response, Syrian air defense units fired a large number of anti-aircraft missiles, notably SA-5 missiles, at the attacking Israeli planes, according to Syrian state media.

An Israeli soldier uses a mask to hold a piece of debris from a Syrian surface-to-air missile that landed near the Dimona nuclear site in Israel’s southern Negev desert, on April 22, 2021. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Israeli radar detected that at least one of the SA-5s — also known as S-200 missiles — was on a trajectory that would have it land in the northern Negev desert, which both triggered sirens in the area and prompted Israeli air defense troops to fire an interceptor missile at the incoming projectile.

According to the IDF, the interceptor failed to shoot down the Syrian anti-aircraft missile, a massive projectile with a 200 kilogram (440 pound) warhead. The military said it was launching an investigation into the matter.

Fragments of a Syrian SA-5 missile fired toward Israel, which landed in a swimming pool in the community of Ashalim in the northern Negev, on April 22, 2021. (courtesy)

Pieces of the projectile were recovered from Ashalim. A number landed in the community’s swimming pool.

The IDF has refused to identify which of its air defense systems was used in the effort. Video footage of the launch of the Israeli interceptor was widely shared on social media (below).

Residents of Jerusalem and central Israel reported feeling reverberations of an explosion. It was not clear if it was caused by the impact of the Syrian missile on the ground or by the failed interception attempt.

In response to the launch of the surface-to-air missile, the Israeli military conducted a second round of airstrikes in Syria, targeting Syrian air defenses, including the battery that fired the SA-5 that struck southern Israel.

Syrian state media reported that four soldiers were injured in the Israeli attack. Syrian news outlets reported that one of the four troops was killed in the strike, though that was not immediately confirmed by official Syrian sources.

Though they are primarily designed to intercept aircraft and projectiles in the air, SA-5 missiles are capable of causing considerable damage if they strike the ground by virtue of their large size.

In 2019, in a similar case, a Syrian SA-5 missile that was fired at an Israeli jet crashed in northern Cyprus, causing a large explosion and starting a fire.

Fragments of a Syrian SA-5 missile fired toward Israel, which landed in the community of Ashalim in the northern Negev, on April 22, 2021. (courtesy)

Israel has regularly accused the Syrian military of wildly firing large amounts of anti-aircraft missiles in response to its strikes.

The predawn incident came amid peak tensions between Israel and Iran, weeks after an attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear site earlier this month, which has been widely attributed to the Jewish state. Iran has vowed to retaliate for the alleged Israeli sabotage.

IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman stressed that the military did not believe the overnight incident was a deliberate attack on the country or its nuclear facility.

“There was no intention of hitting the nuclear reactor in Dimona,” Zilberman told reporters.

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