Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said airstrikes targeting key Iranian military facilities in Syria over the weekend inflicted heavy damage on the Iranian and Syrian militaries, and vowed that Israel would act decisively to counter any further provocations.
“Yesterday we dealt a serious blow to the armies of Iran and Syria,” Netanyahu told ministers at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “We made it unequivocally clear to everyone that our rules of engagement have not changed in any way.”
“We will continue to strike back at any attempt to harm us,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement. “This has been our policy and will remain our policy.”
The wave of Israeli airstrikes came after the IDF intercepted an Iranian drone that had infiltrated its airspace and an Israeli F-16 was downed upon its return from Syria on Saturday. It was Israel’s most serious engagement in neighboring Syria since fighting there began in 2011 — and its most devastating air assault on the country in decades.
The IDF said it destroyed the drone’s Iranian launching site along with four additional Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites, including the Syrian military’s main command and control bunker.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said Sunday that at least six Syrian troops and allied militiamen were killed in the airstrikes. The six included Syrian troops as well as non-Syrian allied troops, the Britain-based Observatory said.
It began at approximately 4:25 a.m. on Saturday, when an Iranian drone from Syria entered Israeli territory from Jordan and was shot down by an Apache attack helicopter near the northern Israeli city of Beit She’an, according to the army.
During retaliatory airstrikes later on Saturday, the Israeli jets came under heavy Syrian anti-aircraft fire. The pilots of one of the F-16s had to eject and the plane crashed in northern Israel. One pilot was seriously wounded and the other one lightly.
Israel would not confirm whether its aircraft was actually shot down by enemy fire, which would mark the first such instance for Israel since 1982 during the first Lebanon war. However, an initial investigation indicated the plane was targeted by anti-aircraft missiles, one of which exploded adjacent to the plane, compelling the crew to eject.
Israel has recently issued several stern warnings about the increased Iranian involvement along its borders with Syria and Lebanon, which it attributes to Iran’s growing confidence following Syrian President Bashar Assad’s successes in the Syrian civil war, thanks to support by main allies Russia and Iran.
On Sunday, members of the high-level security cabinet said Israel’s retaliatory strikes sent a clear message to Tehran that it would not tolerate an Iranian military foothold on its doorstep and vowed that Israel would continue to act against efforts to violate its sovereignty.
Intelligence Minister Israel Katz told Army Radio that Israel was not seeking to inflame tensions along the northern border, and indicated the strikes caught Iran by surprise.
“They, and we, know what we hit and it will take them some time to digest, understand, and ask how Israel knew how to hit those sites,” he said. “These were concealed sites and we have intelligence agencies and the ability to know everything that is going on there and yesterday we proved that.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett told the radio station Israel won’t show restraint when its sovereignty is violated, and warned that Saturday’s strikes were “a small example of what we know how to do.”
Israel fears Iran could use Syrian territory to stage attacks or create a land corridor from Iran to Lebanon that could allow it to transfer weapons more easily to the Lebanese Hezbollah — an Iranian-backed Shiite militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction. Hezbollah’s fighters are also fighting on Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war.
Though Israel has largely stayed out of the Syrian conflict, it has reportedly struck weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah dozens of times since 2012.
Israel has also shot down several drones that previously tried to infiltrate its territory from Syria, but the capture of an Iranian drone and the direct targeting of Iranian sites in response marked a dramatic escalation in the Israeli retaliation.