Israel will continue to defend itself, including by acting against Iranian efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday evening, at the end of a day that saw a dramatic escalation in Iranian-Israeli hostilities on Israel’s northern border, including the apparent downing of an Israeli fighter jet.
“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,” Netanyahu said in a filmed statement from the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, adding that Israel “holds Iran and its Syrian hosts responsible for today’s aggression.”
Netanyahu also said that he spoke with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, noting that Israeli-Russian military coordination vis-a-vis Syria will continue.
“I want to clarify: Israel seeks peace but we will continue to defend ourselves resolutely against any attack against us and against any attempt by Iran to establish itself militarily against us in Syria or anywhere else,” Netanyahu said.
“Our policy is absolutely clear: Israel will defend itself against any attack and any attempt to harm our sovereignty,” he said. “Iran made such an attempt today. It brazenly violated our sovereignty, it infiltrated its aircraft into Israeli territory from Syrian territory,” he said, referring to an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle.
The drone remained in Israeli airspace for a minute and a half before it was downed by a combat helicopter. Israeli then launched airstrikes on a dozen Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria, including on the control center that launched the UVA.
“This is both our right and our duty and we will continue to make use of it as necessary. Let no one make a mistake,” Netanyahu said.
The Israeli airstrikes marked “the biggest and most significant attack the air force has conducted against Syrian air defenses since Operation Peace for the Galilee” in 1982 during the First Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force’s second-in-command Brig. Gen, Tomer Bar said Saturday.
Syria’s responding anti-aircraft fire led to the apparent downing of an Israeli F-16, in which two pilots were injured, one seriously and another lightly. Both were being treated at Rambam Hospital in Haifa.
“I have been warning for some time about the dangers of Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. Iran seeks to use Syrian territory to attack Israel for its professed goal of destroying Israel,” Netanyahu said. Iran sending a drone into Israeli airspace “demonstrates that our warnings were 100% correct,” he added. “We will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect our sovereignty and our security.”
In his conversation with Putin — with whom he met last week in Moscow — Netanyahu said he reiterated Israel’s “right and obligation” to defend itself against attacks emanating from Syrian territory. “We agreed that the security coordination between our armies would continue,” said Netanyahu, referring to the so-called deconfliction mechanism that is geared to guaranteed that Israeli and Russian aircraft don’t collide over Syrian skies.
Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said Israel will neither accept weapon transfers from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, nor the development of Iranian “indigenous missile construction and upgrade capability” in Lebanon.
“The Iranians are crossing red lines. They are playing with fire,” he said. “Iranian military presence and activity in Syria presents a threat not only to Israel but to regional stability as a whole.”
All regional actors interested in stabilizing the region “should work together to counter Iran, prevent it from basing itself in Syria, and stop its support of Hezbollah,” he said.
Israel has issued several stern warnings of late about the increased Iranian involvement along its border in Syria and Lebanon. The Israeli cabinet just held a meeting near the Syrian border to highlight the new threats, which it attributes to Iran’s growing confidence given the success of the government of Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war thanks to their support.
Israel called the drone infiltration a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty” and warned that Iran would be held accountable for its meddling, raising the specter of a larger confrontation in an area that has remained largely stable since a monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.
“This is a serious Iranian attack on Israeli territory. Iran is dragging the region into an adventure in which it doesn’t know how it will end,” Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, said in a special statement. “Whoever is responsible for this incident is the one who will pay the price.”
AP contributed to this report.