JERUSALEM — An unmanned Iranian aircraft shot down in February after infiltrating Israeli airspace was armed with explosives and on a mission to attack the Jewish state, Israel’s military said Saturday. Tensions had heighted between the bitter enemies following an airstrike Monday on a Syrian air base that its allies blamed on Israel.
The army statement was released soon after the leader of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group said the airstrike that killed seven Iranians was a “historic mistake.”
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied carrying out the strike on Syria’s T4 air base.
The Israeli military said Friday evening that following an “operational and intelligence-based investigation,” its military has concluded that the “Iranian aircraft was armed with explosives and was tasked to attack Israeli territory.”
By intercepting the craft Israeli “combat helicopters prevented the attack Iran had hoped to carry out,” it said.
Israel considers Iran an existential threat because of its nuclear and missile programs, its support of violent anti-Israel groups in the region and frequent calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Israel has issued several stern warnings of late about the increased Iranian involvement along its border in Syria and Lebanon. It fears Iran could use Syrian territory to stage attacks or form a land corridor from Iran to Lebanon that could allow it to transfer weapons more easily to Hezbollah — Lebanon’s Iranian-backed political party and militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction.
Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said the attack on the air base in Syria ushers in a new phase that puts Israel in a state of “direct confrontation” with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Israel’s Channel 10 TV said the Iranian drone was launched from the T4 base and marked the first time Iran directly attacked Israel, rather than through Hezbollah.
Iran, Russia and Syria have blamed Israel for the airstrike, which followed a suspected chemical attack on a rebel-held town near Damascus that killed dozens of civilians.
Speaking via satellite link to his supporters in Beirut Friday, Nasrallah called the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma “theater.”
Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in 2006.