The Shiite militant group in Lebanon has sent drones over Israel in the past, linking their use to Israeli violations of Lebanon's airspace.
But Hezbollah in a short statement denied sending a drone into Israel. And a source in the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon said that an initial assessment indicated no drone had been detected on their radars. The rare drone flight comes amid a significant increase in Israel’s aerial violations of Lebanese airspace since the beginning of the year, with up to 34 jets flying in Lebanese skies in one day alone in January.
Hezbollah has sent drones over Israel in the past, linking their use to Israeli violations of Lebanon's airspace.
The Israeli military said it detected the pilotless drone in the early afternoon heading toward the northern port city of Haifa, 25 miles south of the border with Lebanon. Israeli air force jets were dispatched to the area and the drone was shot down some five miles off the coast.
Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the Israeli army spokesman, said that the drone had been tracked for several minutes as it passed through Lebanese territory before it was determined to be “hostile.”
“The drone was at 6,000 feet when it blew up and it was not immediately clear whether the drone was armed or not,” he said.
A helicopter carrying Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to a ceremony in northern Israel was forced to land briefly while the drone was shot down.
“I see this attempt to breach our borders as extremely grave,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said. “We will continue to do whatever we must to protect the security of Israel’s citizens.”
Israeli military officials were initially cautious over allegations of who operated the drone. But Danny Danon, the deputy defence minister, squarely blamed Hezbollah.
“We’re talking about another attempt by Hezbollah to send an unmanned drone into Israeli territory,” he told Israeli army radio, describing it as “another attempt to destabilize the Middle East.”
He added, “We are ready to act as necessary. They know not to provoke us.”
Hezbollah has admitted flying drones in Israeli airspace on six separate occasions since November 2004, three of them during the month-long war with Israel in July 2006. (This sentence has been amended to reflect Hezbollah's denial that it sent today's drone.)
The last overflight was in October 2012 when Hezbollah flew an Iran-manufactured drone above southern Israel before it was shot down by an Israeli jet over the Negev desert. On that occasion, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, admitted his organization sent the drone.
“It was not the first time and it will not be the last. We can reach all the zones of Israel,” he said.
Nasrallah also used the occasion to note that in the six years between the end of the 2006 war and the drone flight over the Negev desert, Lebanon’s airspace had been violated 20,468 times by Israeli jets and drones.
The United Nations has repeatedly described Israel's overflights in Lebanese airspace as “provocative" and demanded a halt to the practice. A recent UN report recorded that Israel staged 34 air violations in one day alone in January. The report added that on November 28, 2012, six Israeli attack helicopters flew at low altitude in Lebanese airspace off the southern port city of Tyre.
Since the beginning of this year, there has been a significant escalation in Israeli aerial violations. Twin white contrails marking the passage of Israeli jets are a regular sight in the blue skies above Lebanon. Hours before the drone was intercepted off the Israeli coast, the rumble of Israeli jets flying above Beirut was clearly audible.
Israel says the reconnaissance flights are necessary to monitor Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon. Additionally, Israel is concerned that advanced air defense systems or even chemical weapons could be delivered to Hezbollah from Syria.
On Jan. 31, Israel staged an unprecedented air strike against a suspected arms convoy outside Damascus that reportedly was carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles for delivery to Hezbollah.
* This story was updated to include Hezbollah's denial of that it sent today's drone.