BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of Hezbollah claimed responsibility Thursday for launching the drone aircraft that entered Israeli airspace earlier this week, a rare and provocative move by the Lebanese militants at a time of soaring regional tensions.
Israeli warplanes shot down the unmanned plane, but the infiltration marked a rare breach of Israel’s airspace. Hezbollah was the leading suspect because of its arsenal of sophisticated Iranian weapons and a history of trying to deploy similar aircraft.
“Today we are uncovering a small part of our capabilities, and we shall keep many more hidden,” Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised address. “It is our natural right to send other reconnaissance flights inside occupied Palestine. … This is not the first time and will not be the last. We can reach anyplace we want” inside Israel, he said.
With a formidable arsenal that rivals that of the Lebanese army, Hezbollah is already under pressure in Lebanon from rivals who accuse it of putting Lebanon at risk of getting sucked into regional turmoil. Confirmation that Hezbollah was behind the drone could put the group under further strain internally as it pursues its longstanding conflict with Israel.
Israel routinely sends F-16s into over Lebanon, breaking the sound barrier over Beirut and other places as a show of strength.
Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite group committed to Israel’s destruction, long has served as an Iranian proxy along Israel’s northern border. The two sides fought a brutal monthlong war in mid-2006. Hundreds of people were killed, and Hezbollah fired several thousand rockets and missiles into Israel before the conflict ended in a stalemate.
Hezbollah has attempted to send unmanned aircraft into Israel on several occasions, dating back to 2004. Sheik Nasrallah has claimed that the group’s pilotless aircraft were capable of carrying explosives and striking deep into Israel.
Since the fighting ended, the sides have been locked in a covert battle against each other.
Touring southern Israel on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised efforts to prevent land infiltrations from Egypt. He mentioned that Israel has been equally successful “in the air, just like we thwarted the Hezbollah attempt last weekend,” his first public statement blaming Hezbollah.
Israel says the drone was not carrying explosives and appeared to be on a reconnaissance mission.