The Israel Defenses Forces said Saturday it successfully intercepted three drones flown by the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group that were heading for the Karish gas field off Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
Tensions have risen over the site in recent weeks, after a gas production vessel arrived in Israel to launch extraction operations in the offshore field, drawing condemnation from Lebanon, which had laid claim to parts of it. Israel says Karish is in part of its UN-recognized exclusive economic zone.
One of the Hezbollah aircraft was downed by an F16 fighter jet, and the other two by Barak 8 missiles launched from the Saar 5 Class Corvette INS Eilat, the military said in a statement.
Saturday’s incident marked the first operational drone interception by Barak 8 missiles from a navy ship.
The UAVs were intercepted “at a safe distance from” the drilling platform, according to defense officials.
Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah recently threatened Israel over plans to extract gas from the contested offshore reserve, saying that his organization is capable of preventing such action, including by force.
But the military said a preliminary investigation showed that the drones did not pose a “real threat” at any point during their flight, indicating they were not armed and instead were used for surveillance purposes or to prove they have the capability.
The terror group later confirmed it launched the three unarmed drones, saying they were intended to carry out a “reconnaissance mission” in the area.
Hezbollah added that the mission was accomplished successfully and ” a message was conveyed.”
The IDF said the UAVs were “identified at an early stage and monitored throughout their flight by air control units” and “intercepted at the most appropriate operational point.”
“You have permission, take the UAV out now,” a senior officer is heard saying over the phone at the Navy’s operational headquarters, in a video published by the IDF.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz responded to the incident, saying Israel was “prepared to defend its infrastructure in the face of any threat.”
“The Hezbollah terrorist organization undermines the Lebanese state’s ability to reach an agreement on the maritime border that is essential to Lebanon’s economy and citizens,” he said in a statement published by his office.
“Israel will continue to protect its assets, and considers itself obligated and entitled to act and respond in the face of any attempt to harm it,” he added.
Lebanon and Israel — which have no diplomatic relations and consider each other enemy states — have been holding indirect talks brokered by the US for close to two years to resolve a maritime border dispute.
Talks over the field have been frozen since last year, after Lebanon tried to move its claim further into the zone Israel claims as its own. Last month, the Biden administration said recent meetings held between its energy envoy and Israeli and Lebanese officials have resulted in progress.
Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as being within their exclusive economic zones.
Both Israel and Lebanon have economic interests in the territory, which contains lucrative natural gas. Lebanon, which has been facing an economic crisis since late 2019, sees the resources as a potential road out of its current situation.
Also last month, the IDF held a major military exercise in Cyprus, simulating a ground offensive deep inside Lebanon in a potential war against the Iran-backed Hezbollah.
The terror group has long been a significant adversary for the IDF, with an estimated arsenal of nearly 150,000 rockets and missiles that can reach anywhere in Israel.