In a rare incident Israeli warplanes were reportedly intercepted by Russian fighter jets over Lebanon early Monday morning, despite an understanding in place between Moscow and Jerusalem to avoid conflict between the two countries.
Hadashot news, citing Lebanese and Russian media outlets, said that 2 Israeli Air Force F-16 planes were challenged by Sukhoi Su-34 jets over Tripoli and forced away.
There has been no official confirmation from Russia or Israel.
Video circulated of the Russian planes flying over Lebanon, but the clip did not show any Israeli jets.
— Abdallah Samra (@AbdallahSamra92) May 27, 2018
According to the reports cited by Hadashot, the Russian planes may have been taking part in drills off the coast of Lebanon and Syria but were forced to land due to bad weather conditions.
Al Masdar news said it was the first time in months that Russian planes had entered Lebanese airspace from Syria. The news agency said the reason for the mission was unknown.
Israeli jets reportedly often fly over Lebanese airspace conducting reconnaissance missions. Reports have also said that many of Israel’s attacks on targets in Syria have been launched from Lebanese airspace.
Last week IAF commander Amikam Norkin revealed that an Israeli F-35 fighter jet conducted airstrikes on at least two occasions. He showed visiting air force officers from other countries a photograph of the stealth fighter jet flying over the Lebanese capital of Beirut, in what could be seen as a tacit threat to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group.
Earlier this month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had no reason to believe the Kremlin would try to limit Israel’s freedom of operation in the region.
In light of the heavy Russian presence in Syria, Israel in September 2015 set up a mechanism with Moscow — involving work groups led by the deputy chiefs of both militaries — to avoid conflicts and potentially fatal misunderstandings.
However, senior air force official stressed that this system was limited: Israel does not inform the Russians before conducting airstrikes in Syria, nor does Russia let the Israelis in on its plans.
Since this Russo-Israeli understanding was reached, Israeli officials have stressed the distinction between this particular understanding and full military cooperation.
“Cooperating is not the right term. We do not coordinate [with Russia]. It’s about deconfliction and security measures, so they don’t harm us and we don’t harm them,” a senior officer said recently.
Israel has acknowledged carrying out several aerial raids on Iranian targets in Syria, and is suspected of carrying out several more. The most recent was last week, when a military airbase in western Syria was hit in an airstrike.
“We told the Russians that we were going to strike in Syria, but we didn’t tell them where we exactly were striking or what the targets were,” the officer said.
On Sunday, Netanyahu told his cabinet that Israel was taking action against arms manufacturing in Lebanon and threatened continued fighting with Iran.
“We are working to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. At the same time we are working against the establishment of an Iranian military presence against us; to this end we are also operating against the transfer of deadly weapons from Syria to Lebanon or their manufacture in Lebanon,” Netanyahu said.
“All of these weapons are for use against the State of Israel and it is our right – based on the right of self-defense – to prevent their manufacture or transfer,” he said. Netanyahu did not specify what action was being taken against the arms in Lebanon.