The military said its planes faced massive anti-aircraft fire from Syria that forced two pilots to abandon an F-16 jet that crashed in northern Israel. USA TODAY
An Israeli fighter jet, under fire from Syrian anti-aircraft batteries, crashed Saturday as Israel mounted a heavy military response to what it said was the incursion of its airspace by an Iranian drone.
Two Israeli pilots were injured — one seriously — after abandoning their F-16 over northern Israel while taking part in what the Israeli military called a “large-scale attack” on at least a dozen Iranian targets in Syria.
The drone, which Israel said was launched from Syria, was shot down by an Israeli helicopter after what the military called a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty.”
Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said Israeli forces were “fully prepared for further action.”
“Syrians are playing with fire when they allow Iranians to attack Israel,” Conricus warned.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman were convening a meeting of the top brass at military headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss a further response.
Syrian state media quoted a military source as saying the country’s air defenses opened fire in response to an Israeli act of “aggression” against a military base, hitting “more than one plane,” the BBC reported.
Later, Syria state TV said its air defenses responded to new Israeli raids near the capital Damascus.
It is the first time Israel has lost an aircraft in combat since 2006 when an Israeli helicopter was shot down over Lebanon by a Hezbollah rocket, according to the Jerusalem Post.
David Ivry, a former Israeli Air Force chief, told Reuters he believed it was the first time an Israeli F-16 was brought down since Israel began using the jets in the 1980s.
The Israeli attacks came in response to what the Israeli military said was the incursion of Israeli airspace early Saturday by an Iranian drone.
IDF chief spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said the drone had taken off from Syrian territory and was shot down by an Israeli helicopter. “The Iranian drone fell in our territory and is in our possession,” he said.
Manelis called the incident a “serious Iranian attack” on Israeli territory.
“Iran is dragging the region into an adventure in which it doesn’t know how it will end,” he said in a statement. “Whoever is responsible for this incident is the one who will pay the price.”
The pro-Assad military alliance, which includes Iran and Hezbollah, warned Israel on Saturday that any new act of what it called “terrorism” will be met with a “severe and serious response,” Al Jazeera reports. Russia called on sides to exercise restraint, adding that any threat to the safety of Russian servicemen are “unacceptable.”
The Israeli military said it struck 12 targets including three Syrian aerial defense batteries and four Iranian targets that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria.
“Anti-aircraft missiles were fired towards Israel, triggering alarms in northern Israel,” the IDF tweeted.
It was not clear whether the Israeli jet was hit by Syria fire or simply crashed after the pilots bailed out.
“We don’t know if the pilots ejected because of the (Syrian)fire,” said IDF spokesperson Conricus. It was also unclear at what stage of the mission they ejected, he said, “but it is of extreme concern to us if they were shot down.”
Israel has long complained about the involvement of archenemy Iran, and Iranian proxy Hezbollah, in the Syria war. The Shiite allies have sent forces to back Syrian President Bashar Assad, who appears headed toward victory after years of fighting. Israel has said it will not accept a permanent military presence by Iran and its Shiite allies in Syria, especially near the Israeli border.
Israel has mostly stayed out of the fighting in Syria, wary of being drawn into fighting between forces that are all opposed to it.
Israel has been warning lately of increased Iranian involvement along its border in Syria and Lebanon. It 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 Hezbollah.
Contributing: Associated Press