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Outgoing air force chief: Israel no longer has full freedom of action over Lebanon

Amikam Norkin says Hezbollah nearly shot down an Israeli drone with an anti-aircraft missile last year, alerting officials to the terror group’s new capabilities

An F-35 jet maneuvers during a graduation ceremony for pilots who have completed the IAF Flight Course, at the Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev desert, December 26, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90/File)
An F-35 jet maneuvers during a graduation ceremony for pilots who have completed the IAF Flight Course, at the Hatzerim Air Base in the Negev desert, December 26, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90/File)

Outgoing air force chief Amikam Norkin said Israel no longer has unfettered air superiority and freedom of action in Lebanon’s skies in an interview broadcast on Tuesday.

After a drone was nearly shot down by an anti-aircraft missile over Lebanon about a year ago, Israel realized that Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group had some capabilities it was not previously aware of, Norkin said.

Israeli officials realized aircraft were threatened by Hezbollah missiles over Lebanon, and decided to reduce the number of surveillance flights over its northern neighbor, harming Israel’s intelligence gathering capabilities, Norkin told the Kan public broadcaster.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah is believed to be holding onto some weapons, like the anti-aircraft missiles, in case of war with Israel to surprise Israeli forces, the report said.

The report seemed to confirm a boast by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in February that Israeli drone flights over Lebanon have been “greatly reduced” due to Hezbollah’s improved air defenses.

Nasrallah threatened to begin shooting down drones in 2019, after two drones exploded in southern Beirut, in an attack blamed on Israel.

Asked if the air force is ready to attack Iran, amid criticism that the army is unprepared, Norkin hedged and said Tehran only returned to the top of the military’s agenda after the US pulled out of the nuclear deal in 2018.

“We need to present what we can do, not only in Iran, in 2022, 2023 and on. But we also need to stand by what we cannot do, because the air force head has a huge responsibility,” Norkin said. “And based on what answers they give, decisions are made by the leadership. So I only give accurate, reliable answers about what we can do.”

Kan said a longer version of the interview will be aired Thursday.

The Israeli Air Force regularly acts against Iran-linked targets in Syria, and sometimes over Lebanon, but has been contending with new aerial challenges from Hezbollah and other adversaries.

The Israeli military fears that in the coming years its air superiority may be tested as Iranian-made and -designed drones and cruise missiles flood the Middle East, representing a greater threat to Israel than the simple rockets that terror groups in the region have possessed until now.

This photo released Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, by the Iranian Army, shows a missile being fired during a military drill at an undisclosed location in Iran. (Iranian Army via AP)

Military officials said last month that Iran’s “UAV terror” is a new and global issue, accusing Tehran of directly attacking both military and civilian targets in the Middle East.

Nasrallah also said in February that Hezbollah was able to reengineer thousands of rockets as precision-guided missiles and produce its own drones. The group has flown dozens of small drones into Israel in recent years, apparently for surveillance purposes.

The Syrians have fired around 1,200 anti-aircraft missiles in the past decade, with the pace growing over the years. A Syrian anti-aircraft missile shot down an Israeli F-16 jet in 2018. Both the pilot and navigator bailed out of the plane and survived.

Syria operates an advanced Russian-made S-300 air defense system, which has not yet been used against Israeli forces, but represents a significant challenge since the system poses a threat to aircraft for hundreds of miles around it, according to a report last month. Israeli officials fear the system may come into more widespread use in Syria.

Late last month, the military officially received a massive new balloon equipped with an advanced missile and aircraft detection system from the Defense Ministry.

The radar-based system, deployed in the north at an unspecified date, is part of a general effort by the Israeli Air Force to improve the country’s air defenses, particularly in the north, due to the proliferation of Iranian drones and cruise missiles.

Last month, Israeli officials said they believed two drones, which were reportedly launched from Iran and intercepted by the US-led international coalition in Iraq last month, were aimed at Israel.

A wave of drone and missile attacks launched by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen hit an oil facility in Saudi Arabia last month, causing significant damage.

Israel and its regional allies are working on developing a joint defense system to protect against the threat of Iranian drones and missiles, according to reports last month.

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