Israel's defense establishment has decided, thus far, to refrain from divulging the full details regarding the origin of the unmanned aerial vehicle that was shot down by the IDF over the Negev earlier Saturday.
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The only details published were that the UAV penetrated Israeli airspace from the direction of the Mediterranean, around the Gaza Strip.
Nonetheless, it is unlikely that Palestinian terror organizations from Gaza are responsible for the operation. In recent years, several reports surfaced in the Arab media that Gaza terror groups are showing an interest in UAVs. This incident, however, seems like a more complicated operation and therefore the immediate suspect is Hezbollah.
In the two years before the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah launched drones into Israel twice. Two more drones were intercepted by the IDF during the war in the summer of 2006, and were believed to had carried explosives meant to go off over central Israel. A fifth drone launched during the war crashed inside Lebanon, likely due to a technical failure.
The key question that must be examined during the IDF investigation into Saturday's incident should focus on the amount of time the drone stayed in Israel's skies. Defense Minister Ehud Barak hurried to release a congratulatory statement to the IDF for the quick interception of the drone. The IDF Spokesperson also praised the speedy and efficient operation. However, it appears that the drone traveled more than 15 minutes over southern Israel.
The main consideration regarding the delay of the drone's interception was its proximity to population centers. After the identification of the drone was complete, and it was confirmed that it posed no threat to Israeli aircraft, the IDF had to ensure that its interception would not endanger civilian lives.
To some extent, this seems like the aerial version of the penetration of Sinai militants into Israel earlier this year. In that incident, the IDF also allowed the armored personnel carrier to move within Israel for about 15 minutes until IDF forces could isolate it and attack it in an unpopulated area, with no harm done to civilians or soldiers.
It is possible that in Saturday's incident another consideration was at play: the downing of the drone over the Gaza Strip would not have allowed the IDF to collect its remnants and examine it. Moreover, an interception above Gaza could have disrupted the relative quiet on the border.
Hezbollah invests much in operating drones in a continuous and in-depth manner, while receiving support from Iran. The drones that the IDF had intercepted in the past, all in the area around the Lebanese border, were the Iranian-made Ababil drone. Since then, it can be assumed that Hezbollah has upgraded its equipment. As part of drills simulating another war in Lebanon, the IDF has prepared itself for interceptions of additional Hezbollah drones.
As far as Hezbollah is concerned, there is a double advantage of launching suicidal drones: it showcases impressive skill and the drone has the capability of carrying a relatively large amount of explosives. If its launchers are controlling it, they can direct it toward a target with relative precision and cause much damage - no less than the damage caused by medium-range missile.
What were the launchers of Saturday's drone looking for? According to the size of the explosion caused by the IAF strike, it appears that the drone was not carrying explosives. More likely, it was probably gathering intelligence for one or two reasons: to photograph possible targets within Israel and to examine options for penetrating the Israeli airspace by checking the preparation and response time of the IDF.
Another possibility is that the Egyptian intelligence is behind the launch, or perhaps Islamist terror groups operating in Sinai. Israeli military officials refused to comment on those possibilities.
If Hezbollah is behind the drone launch, another interesting question surrounds the nature of the balance of deterrence between the Shi'ite organization and Israel. Until late, Israeli intelligence used to believe that the magnitude of the blow issued to Hezbollah in the 2006 war has deterred it from taking steps against Israel. However, Hezbollah was behind the July attack in Bulgaria, in which five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver were killed.
Even though the quiet on the northern border has been maintained, it appears that signs are emerging that indicate that Hezbollah is looking for indirect routes to challenge Israel.