IDF Patriot intercepts apparent Hezbollah drone from Syria

Army says it ‘will not allow’ Iran and its allies near the Golan Heights to violate Israeli sovereignty

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The Israeli Air Force shot down an Iranian-built drone launched by the Hezbollah terrorist organization with a Patriot missile after it attempted to cross into Israeli airspace on Tuesday, the army said.

The military also scrambled fighter jets to the area, but ultimately did not need to use them as the interceptor missile was able to destroy the target.

After the drone breached the “Bravo line” that marks the Syrian border and entered the demilitarized zone — but not Israeli airspace — the IDF “decided to intercept it,” army spokesperson Lt. Col. Yonatan Conricus said.

In a statement, the IDF said it “will not allow any infiltration or approach toward the Golan Heights area by terrorist figures from Iranian forces, Hezbollah, Shiite militias or Islamic Jihad.”

Speaking to reporters, Conricus added that Israel “will respond swiftly and forcefully against any such attempts.”

However, he said the IDF was “not looking to escalate” the situation by retaliating “at this time.”

Shortly after the incident, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned that any country or terrorist group that threatens Israel will “pay a dear price, very dear.”

“I want to again note the high level of preparedness by the IDF, which knows how to handle every surprise, every problem and every threat,” Liberman said, during a visit to the Elbit defense contractor in the southern town of Arad.

“As I’ve said in the past, we do not intend to suffer any threat or any attempt to harm the security of the State of Israel,” Liberman said.

According to Conricus, the air force monitored the unmanned aerial vehicle from its take-off at Damascus airport to the demilitarized zone that separates the Israeli and Syrian Golan Heights.

“We monitor everything that flies toward the State of Israel and follow it closely for any potential threat,” he said.

Conricus said Military Intelligence was able to identify the drone as Iranian-built and Hezbollah-launched based on the army’s arrays of sensors in the area and its years of experience monitoring the group.

The spokesperson said the drone appeared to be performing reconnaissance mission in the area. It was not immediately clear if the drone was armed.

The debris from the drone landed near the Syrian city of Quneitra so the IDF was not able to recover it, he said.

He would not comment on whether the IDF was in contact about the incident with Russian forces in the region, with which Israel has a communication mechanism in place to avoid friction.

The Patriot interceptor missile was launched from a military installation in northern Israel, near the city of Safed.

A Patriot anti-missile system in Israel (Photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash 90)
A Patriot anti-missile system in Israel (Shay Levy/Flash90)

IDF troops in the area were placed on high alert following the interception of the drone, as per standard army doctrine, not because of a particular, expected response, Conricus said.

Israel has long been concerned by its nemesis Iran’s ongoing efforts to establish itself in southern Syria, near the Golan Heights.

Jerusalem fears that the Iranian presence in that area would serve as a springboard for terrorist groups to attack Israel in the future.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly been negotiating with his counterparts in the United States and Russia to establish an Iran-free area around surrounding the border, but to no avail yet.

The Patriot missile system was designed by the United States to intercept incoming missiles and aircraft.

It has been deployed in Israel since the 1990s, but first saw anti-aircraft combat during the 2014 Gaza war, when a battery shot down an unmanned Hamas aircraft over the port of Ashdod.

On August 31, 2014, the system saw its second combat use, when a battery shot down a Syrian unmanned aerial vehicle in the Golan Heights.

A month after that, the Patriot system was used to down a Syrian Air Force Sukhoi Su-24, which penetrated Israeli air space.

More recently, in April, the system successfully shot down a UAV. However, the interceptor has not always stood up to the challenge.

In July 2016, the Air Force fired two Patriot missiles at drones that breached Israeli air space near the Syrian border. (Originally feared to be a Hezbollah drone, it was later said to have been a Russian UAV that entered Israeli territory accidentally.)

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