Israeli fighter jets scrambled to intercept an unmanned drone flying just eight miles off the coast of Haifa Thursday. At the same time, an Israeli Air Force helicopter carrying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to an event just 20 miles north of the incident was forced to make an unscheduled landing until after the drone was downed by the F-16s.
The Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah, which was behind a similar drone incursion six months ago, is denying involvement in launching the latest drone which Israeli officials say was also launched from Lebanon. Hezbollah issued a press release saying, "Hezbollah denies sending any unmanned drone into the airspace of occupied Palestine."
While the IDF continues to search for the drone's remains, Israeli analysts aren't giving much credence to the Hezbollah denial.
Yaakov Lappin of the Jerusalem Post suggests it's all "a dangerous publicity stunt." He writes:
Hezbollah's attempt - likely Iranian-backed - to fly a drone into Israeli air space on Thursday is a dangerous publicity stunt designed to distract attention from its large-scale and bloody involvement in the Syrian civil war.
As the Shi'ite terror organization sends more and more fighters to kill Sunni Syrian rebels, and to try and save the regime of Bashar Assad, it is struggling to justify its involvement to Sunni Lebanese, who are growing increasingly outraged and are openly challenging Hezbollah's role in their country and the region. Sending a drone into Israeli air space is meant to remind the Lebanese public that Hezbollah is still defined by its jihad against Israel.
Despite being an exercise in PR, the drone incident remains a serious provocation - an attempted breach of Israeli air space near Haifa, home to sensitive petrochemical plants that Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to target.
Ynet's military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai says "it can be safely assumed that the downed drone's point of departure was a Hezbollah base in the Lebanon Valley." Ynet echoes the assessment that Hezbollah is engaged in damage control over its involvement in Syria:
Hezbollah's meddling in Lebanon is rising, and the heavy damage the Shiite group causes Lebanon has drawn a lot of anger against the organization within Lebanon, leading even some prominent Hezbollah supporters from the Shiite sects to openly slam its involvement in the Syrian civil war.
It is possible that the drone was sent in an attempt to divert public opinion back to Hezbollah's efforts to "protect Lebanon from Israel."
According to Israeli Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, the IAF detected the drone when it was still in Lebanese airspace
The IDF says the drone was tracked "for the duration of its flight path as it attempted to approach Israel's coast." Israeli aircraft successfully downed the drone off of the coast of Haifa, Israel's third largest city.
Israeli officials aren't saying if they believe that whoever launched the drone knew Netanyahu's helicopter was scheduled to fly in the vicinity.
"I view with great gravity this attempt to violate our border. We will continue to do what is necessary to defend the security of Israel's citizens," Netanyahu said in a speech in the Druze village Julis where his chopper finally landed.
The IDF Spokesperson's office released a statement saying: "UAVs pose a serious threat to the State of Israel's security. The IDF will not tolerate any attempt to violate Israel's sovereignty or harm its security."
The IDF brought down a Hezbollah drone flying over the southern Negev Desert last October. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said then that the drone was Iranian-made and that it wouldn't be the last such operation attempted by the the hardline Shiite group. Ynet reports that Hezbollah is estimated to be in possession of more than 100 Iranian-made drones.
Israeli officials have not yet said if this latest drone was armed or carrying video surveillance equipment or if its ultimate destination before being intercepted has been determined.
Ron Ben-Yishai from Ynet suggests the drone may have been deployed "to gather intelligence on Israeli offshore gas fields or facilities at Haifa Port."
The Times of Israel quotes a military source who spoke to Walla news saying that Hezbollah has been investing a focused effort to obtain Iranian drones for future spying and bombing missions.
In the wake of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, the Knesset convened a special meeting this week to discuss moving a large ammonia plant from Haifa to a less populated area in southern Israel. This, due to repeated Hezbollah threats that it plans to target Israel's petrochemical industry in Haifa.
"It is now time to prepare in terms of protection and removal of the gas and petrochemical facilities in the Haifa Bay," Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said according to the Times of Israel.
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