An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone as they are often called, entered Israel’s Golan Heights airspace today from Syria and was shot down by Israel’s air force. A statement from the army says that the vehicle crossed near the border town of Quneitra, the sight of recent heavy fighting in Syria’s three-year civil war.
A surface-to-air Patriot missile destroyed the drone. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon expressed “little patience” for attempted attacks on his country. As he toured the area, army reinforcements were arriving and armored troop carriers were being deployed. “Anyone trying to test us will meet with a firm response,” he said, adding that Israeli “tolerance” should not be tested.
The Golan Heights is a strategic plateau and the location of a United Nations (U.N.) patrolled line of demilitarization between Israel and Syria. The area was captured by Israel during the decisive Six -Day War in 1967, which had Israel pitted simultaneously against Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said that even though the recent history of occurrences near the border have been of a sensitive nature, it will nevertheless “respond to any breach of Israeli sovereignty.” Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said that the military “will continue to act to maintain safety and security.”
The Golan Heights has seen heavy fighting recently between the authoritarian government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a number of rebel and militant groups. Such fights have thus far been limited to the east side of the border, in Syria. It is not clear whether the intent of the pilot behind the drone from Syrian truly intended to penetrate Israel or if the craft’s mission was somehow related to fighting in the Golan Heights and strayed off course. Lerner said that the crossing was accidental.
Israel has stayed out of Syria’s three-year civil war, although its military has responded when the occasional mortar shell has landed on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights border. Israel says some of the attacks have been spillover and others intentional.
Quneitra has been under control of rebel forces and Islamist extremists since last week. Seventy-five U.N. peacekeepers from the Philippines were trapped in the area last week, only to be rescued after a long gun battle, helped by forces from Ireland. However, 44 Fijian soldiers serving as U.N. peacekeepers were abducted on Thursday by fighters from a branch of al-Qaeda called the al-Nusra Front. The soldiers from Fiji continue to be held at an unknown location. While expressing his wish that the calm achieved by the recently finalized cease-fire with Hamas in the south of his country will continue, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel is “ready for any scenario … including of course the Golan Heights.”
The downing of the drone from Syria prompted Amos Gilad, an official with the Israel Defense Ministry, to state that his country would face a “central challenge” should the civil war in Syria spill over the border. Nevertheless he said that the possibility of militant organizations and their resources making their way into Israel is not an immediate threat. Gilad said that recent beheadings by Islamist extremists “have shocked the West and it is now paying attention.”
By Gregory Baskin