Minister after Israel preempts drone attacks: Iran now ‘directly confronting’ us

Regional Cooperation Minister Hanegbi claims site Israel bombed in Syria was preparing ‘hundreds’ of drones for attack, but IDF says figure was far, far lower

Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting, March 3, 2019 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting, March 3, 2019 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Hours after Israel said it preempted an attack from Syria by Iranian “killer drones,” Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said Sunday that Iran is now in “direct military confrontation” with Israel.

Hanegbi claimed Iran had been preparing to launch hundreds of attack drones at Israel from the site bombed by Israel on Saturday night. But the Israeli military said the number was certainly not in the hundreds, and almost certainly not even dozens.

The airstrike preempted the Iranian plans which, Hanegbi said, was soon to have been put into operation and was intended to “kill Israelis and Jews.”

The Israel Defense Forcse has not identified the specific targets of the Iranian plot, but officials said it was military sites and national infrastructure.

The IDF had been monitoring the Iranian base for some time, Hanegbi noted.

Iran, he said, “is trying to wear down Israel” by funding terror groups to its north and south — a reference to Lebanon, Syria, and the Gaza Strip. There is now “a direct military confrontation” between Iran and Israel, added the Likud minister.

Only a small part of the confrontation is made public, Hanegbi said.

A still from a video purporting to show an Israeli strike on Iran-backed forces in Syria on August 24, 2019. (screen capture: Twitter)

The minister stressed there was no political motivation in the government swiftly taking responsibility for the airstrike and explained that by going public, Israel was hoping to encourage dissident voices in Iran who oppose their regime’s aggression toward the Jewish state.

Earlier, Foreign Minister Israel Katz and Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin both told media that the airstrike was intended to send a message to Iran that it has no immunity against Israel’s military.

However, Democratic Camp member Ehud Barak on Sunday accused the government of using the airstrike to gain political points ahead of upcoming September 17 elections.

“It has no connection to deterrence, that is political hogwash,” Barak told the Ynet website.

Late Saturday night the Israel Defense Forces made a rare announcement admitting it had carried out the attack in Syria against Iranian forces and Shiite militia members who been working on a plan to fly explosives-laden drones into Israel.

The late-night airstrike, which triggered Syrian anti-aircraft fire, appeared to be one of the most intense attacks by Israeli forces on Iranian targets in Syria.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said forces had been put on high alert near the Syrian frontier after the attack. Additional air defense batteries were also deployed to northern Israel to shield from possible reprisal rocket attacks.

In a statement issued just minutes after the Israeli army announced its attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the military’s “major operational effort” in thwarting the attack planned by “the Iranian Quds force and Shiite militias.”

There was no immediate response from Iran following the Israeli attack. Syrian state media said it had shot down most of the Israeli missiles. Military analysts often accuse Syria of exaggerating the efficacy of its air defense systems, claiming to have shot down incoming missiles that in fact hit their targets.

It was not initially clear how many casualties there were from the airstrike with local media and monitoring groups reporting anywhere from three to five fatalities, including members of the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group and Iranian personnel.

A still from a video purporting to show an Israeli strike on Iran-backed forces in Syria on August 24, 2019. (screen capture: Twitter)

There have been few direct clashes between Israel and Iran in Syria. In May 2018, Israel said Iranian forces fired some 20 rockets at Israel, with most being shot down or failing to reach Israeli territory. In response, Israel carried out extensive airstrikes on Iranian positions in Syria.

While Israel has acknowledged carrying out thousands of airstrikes inside Syria against weapons transfers to Iran-backed fighters and to keep Iran from gaining a foothold there, it rarely acknowledges individual strikes.

The ambiguity is part of a strategy seen as helping give Tehran and Damascus cover from needing to strike back to save face. Israel has appeared to apply the same strategy in Iraq, where the IDF has been reported to have carried out a number of strikes on Iran-backed militia positions near Baghdad.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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