Israel will continue to defend itself resolutely against infringements on its sovereignty and Iran’s efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday night after the most intensive IAF bombing of positions in Syria since the First Lebanon War in 1982.
At the end of a long day that began before dawn when Israel identified and quickly downed an Iranian drone that penetrated its airspace, and which included the apparent downing of an Israel Air Force F16I jet that crashed in Israel after its two crew members evacuated, Netanyahu said Israel will continue to hit Iranian and Syrian targets as is necessary.
The crew members landed in Israel, where one of them is in serious condition, and the other was only lightly wounded.
“Our policy is absolutely clear: Israel will defend itself against any attack and any attempt to harm our sovereignty,” the prime minister said. “Iran made such an attempt today. It violated our sovereignty, it infiltrated Israeli territory with an [unmanned] aircraft from Syrian territory.”
Netanyahu said that Israel not only immediately downed the drone and hit the command and control center from which it was launched, but also attacked “with strength” other Iranian and Syrian targets as well.
“This is both our right and our duty and we will continue to do so as much as necessary,” he said. “Let no one make a mistake about this.”
The prime minister said that he spoke during the day with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country is a major stakeholder in Syria, and reiterated Israel’s “right and obligation to defend ourselves against attacks on us from Syrian territory.”
Netanyahu flew to Moscow 10 days ago to convey the same message to Putin. He said on Saturday night that the security coordination between the Israeli and Russian militaries, which has been in place since the end of 2015 to prevent any accidental confrontation between their forces in Syria, would continue.
Netanyahu said that he also spoke during the day with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who left on Saturday for a Mideast tour that will take him to Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait and Turkey.
The prime minister said that he has been warning for months 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,” he said, calling the drone penetration a “brazen” violation of Israel’s sovereignty. He said that this demonstrated that Israel’s warnings about Tehran’s military activity and designs in Syria “were 100% correct,” adding that Jerusalem “holds Iran and its Syrian hosts responsible for today’s aggression.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement urging “all parties involved to exercise restraint and to avoid any actions that could lead to an even greater complication of the situation.”
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, “We consider it necessary to unconditionally respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and other countries of the region. It is absolutely unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian servicemen who are in Syria at the invitation of its legitimate government to assist in the fight against terrorists.”
The statement added that the Russian Foreign Ministry was particularly concerned about “the danger of escalation of tension within and around de-escalation zones in Syria, the creation of which has become an important factor in reducing violence on Syrian soil.”
The US, meanwhile, issued a statement saying “Israel is our closest security partner in the region and we fully support Israel’s inherent right to defend itself against threats to its territory and its people.” The statement stressed, however, that “the Department of Defense did not participate in this military operation.”
Pentagon spokesman Marine Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway said the US shares “the concerns of many throughout the region that Iran’s destabilizing activities threaten international peace and security, and we seek greater international resolve in countering Iran’s malign activities.”
A State Department official said the Trump administration is “deeply concerned” by an escalation of military action along Israel’s northern border with Syria, and “strongly supports Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself.
“Iran’s calculated escalation of threat and its ambition to project its power and dominance, places all the people of the region – from Yemen to Lebanon – at risk,” said State Department spokesman Heather Nauert. “The US continues to push back on the totality of Iran’s malign activities in the region and calls for an end to Iranian behavior that threatens peace and stability.”
Netanyahu spent much of the day in security consultations in Tel Aviv with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and other senior security officials.
The security cabinet is expected to meet on Sunday to discuss the developments. On Wednesday, the security cabinet went to the Golan Heights to get an up-close view of the increasingly tense situation on the northern border.
Throughout the day Saturday, the Israel Air Force’s actions were approved by the top political and security echelon.
Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, who is also a member of the security cabinet, said that the Iranians “are crossing redlines” and “playing with fire.”
Saying that Iran’s activities in Syria present a threat not only to Israel but to regional stability, he warned that Israel will not allow Iran to entrench itself militarily in Syria, violate Israeli sovereignty, transfer weapons through Syria to Hezbollah, or build an indigenous missile construction capability for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“Israel will continue to enforce its redlines, and all international and 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,” the minister said.
Katz noted that Saturday’s events did not “spill over into Hezbollah,” something he said was a sign of Israel’s deterrent capabilities.
Meanwhile, Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon called on the Security Council not to stand idle “when Iran acts to dangerously escalate the situation in the region,” adding that the council must “condemn this dangerous step and immediately end the Iranian provocations.”
In a letter to Security Council, Danon wrote that “this is not the first time we have warned you against Iran’s dangerous actions that undermine the security situation in the region. This incident proves that every one of these warnings proved true. Israel will defend its citizens and will not tolerate any violation of its sovereignty.”
Daniel Roth in New York, Michael Wilner in Washington and Reuters contributed to this report.