President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday visited the two injured IAF pilots who had to eject from their F-16 fighter jet after a Syrian anti-aircraft missile exploded alongside it on Saturday, praising them for their quick response and issuing fresh warnings to Iran. The plane crashed in northern Israel.
“We have proven that we are capable of dealing with Iran,” he told the aviators, referring to the interception of an Iranian drone over Israel and to reprisal strikes on Iranian targets in Syria.
“Once again we have seen the teams, who operate following training and whose DNA is to persistently pursue their objective, refusing to return before completing the mission,” Rivlin added.
Shortly after the meeting at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, one of the airmen, who was lightly wounded while ejecting the plane, was released from hospital.
The other pilot was seriously hurt during the ejection, suffering injuries to his chest and abdomen and undergoing emergency surgery. On Sunday, he regained consciousness and was taken off the respirator, with his injuries now classified as moderate.
Thanking the country’s security forces during the visit, Rivlin added a warning directed at Iran and its regional allies.
“We have Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south, and today we have Iran, and everyone must understand that Israel will not sit idly by when someone tries to disrupt our state and our citizens’ daily lives,” he said. “We aren’t just talking about a nuclear threat, but about a state sponsor of terror.”
Rivlin said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right to have repeatedly warned the international community of the Iranian threat over the past years, including in his vocal criticism of the 2015 nuclear deal signed with world powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
“Everyone in all the world powers and in all countries knows that we won’t be able to accept Iranian involvement on our border,” Rivlin continued.
Rivlin on Saturday spoke over the telephone to the lightly injured pilot.
”My heart is with you and your comrades, and I hope that I will meet you soon. You and the entire squadron have proven that you do not come back until your mission is fulfilled, and I thank God together with the entire nation that you have returned,” Rivlin told the pilot, according to his spokesperson.
The F-16 jet took part in Israeli airstrikes in response to an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace from Syria in the early morning hours on Saturday.
The Israeli Air Force said it was investigating what caused the pilots to eject and if the aircraft was hit by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles. If the plane was in fact shot down by enemy fire, it would mark the first such instance for Israel since the 1982 Lebanon War.
An initial Israeli Air Force investigation indicated that crash was caused by explosion of an anti-aircraft missile next to the plane, the army said early Sunday.
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An army spokesperson stressed that the investigation into the crash is ongoing, but said that the current assessment is that the missile brought down the F-16, known in Israel as a Sufa.
The Israeli Air Force conducted a series of reprisal strikes in Syria.
Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, the Israeli Air Force’s second-in-command, said the Israeli planes faced a massive barrage of Syrian anti-aircraft fire, which reportedly included at least four different types of Russian-made air defense systems, specifically the SA-5, SA-17, SA-6 and SA-3.
While the Israeli Air Force has developed a reputation for aerial superiority in the region, Saturday’s crash served as a stark reminder of what many Israeli defense officials and analysts have been saying for years: no military system is perfect and unbeatable.
The more advanced Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter jets have a significant advantage over the generally older Russian air defense systems — to say nothing of the F-35 stealth aircraft, which was declared operational in December — but that advantage is not total.
On Saturday, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, a former fighter pilot and head of Military Intelligence, dismissed claims that the downing of the F-16 showed that Israel had lost its air superiority.
“True, sometimes there are losses, or mistakes on our side, but the balance is unequivocal,” Yadlin tweeted.
“Israel demonstrated its abilities to defend its skies; it struck for the first time directly Iranian forces in Syria and exacted a price from Iran; it destroyed many Syrian SAM sites and left Damascus exposed to future attacks,” he said.
Agencies contributed to this report.