- - Thursday, April 25, 2013

JERUSALEM — Israeli officials said the drone shot down Tuesday by the air force about 6 miles off its northern coast most likely was an Iranian-made aircraft that is part of Hezbollah’s armory.

Analysts were largely agreed that the purpose of the unmanned aircraft’s flight was to distract attention from the Lebanese terrorist group’s involvement in Syria’s civil war by seeming to challenge the Jewish state.

Hezbollah has battalions fighting in Lebanon for [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, and they’re being criticized for it throughout the Arab world, particularly in Lebanon itself,” said Ehud Ya’ari, Arab affairs commentator for Israel’s Channel 2 television.

Lebanese critics say that Hezbollah was established to defend Lebanon from Israel and that its attempt to use its resources to buttress the Assad regime in Syria is a betrayal of its purpose.

Dozens of Hezbollah fighters reportedly have been killed in the fighting in Syria.

Some commentators suggested that the drone was heading farther south toward Israel’s offshore gas rigs.

Mr. Ya’ari challenged that idea by noting that Lebanon is believed to have large offshore gas deposits and that the public there would be incensed at Hezbollah if it endangered a source of future wealth by attacking Israeli rigs.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was flying north in a helicopter for a meeting when a sighting of the drone was reported, according to Israeli officials. His pilot landed the helicopter until the drone was downed.

The incident comes six months after a Hezbollah drone entered Israeli airspace by flying in over the Gaza Strip. That drone was shot down after penetrating more than 30 miles inland in the direction of Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona.

There was criticism then of the air force’s failure to react more swiftly. In the wake of that incident, a new radar deployment was implemented. There also had been two shallow incursions by small drones over Israel’s northern border during the 2006 war with Hezbollah, but they too were shot down.

An Israeli military spokesman said that radar had picked up the drone while it was over Lebanon and tracked it as it flew out over the Mediterranean Sea parallel to Israel’s coast. Warplanes and armed helicopters were dispatched. After officials determined that the drone did not belong to a friendly power, the order was given to bring it down, the spokesman said.

The drone was flying at about 6,000 feet, and was downed near the northern city of Haifa.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who claimed responsibility for the October drone, issued no statement Thursday.

Israeli Chief of Staff Gen. Benny Gantz said in a speech last month that Hezbollah has a significant number of unmanned drones “which we may encounter in the future.”

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported that Israeli warplanes flew over the Christian town of Jezzine and the highlands of the Iqlim al-Tuffah province, a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon, Thursday morning, The Associated Press reported.



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