Russia Admits It Mistakenly Flew Drone Over Golan Heights Into Israel

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Trails of a Patriot missile that was fired on a drone in northern Israel, July 17, 2016.
Trails of a Patriot missile that was fired on a drone in northern Israel, July 17, 2016.Credit: Safed municipality

Russia has admitted to Israel that the drone that entered Israeli airspace around the Golan Heights three weeks ago belonged to Russian forces stationed in Syria.

According to a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem who declined to be named, the Russians said the infiltration stemmed from a human error.

The intrusion was the most serious incident involving the Israeli and Russian militaries since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent forces to Syria in September 2015 in support of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. In the July 17 incident nearly a year later, the drone flew about four kilometers (2.5 miles) into Israeli airspace.

Participants attend a ceremony to welcome Russian military jets and pilots upon their return to a home airbase from Syria, in Buturlinovka in Voronezh region, Russia, March 15, 2016.Credit: Reuters

The Israel Defense Forces tried to intercept the drone three times. First it shot two Patriot missiles, then a fighter plane fired an air-to-air missile. The efforts failed and the aircraft returned to Syria.

The incident was followed by contacts between the Israeli and Russian militaries as part of a coordination mechanism set up a few months ago.

In debriefings following the incident, IDF officials said it was highly probable  the drone belonged to the Russian military. Still, it was not clear if the infiltration stemmed from an error or a bid to gather intelligence or see how Israel’s air defense system would respond.

The senior Israeli official noted that the Russian military made it clear that the infiltration was a mistake.

He said the incident was the main subject of a telephone conversation between Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu six days later. In a Kremlin statement on the conversation, the subject was not mentioned. It only noted that Netanyahu had initiated the talk and that the two leaders discussed increased cooperation against terrorism and on regional issues.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the start of their meeting in Moscow, June 7, 2016.Credit: Maxim Shipenkov / AP

In a briefing to diplomatic reporters on July 31, Netanyahu declined to say whether the drone belonged to the Russian military or whether he had raised the issue with Putin. But he did not deny that he raised it.

We maintain regular contact with the Russians regarding Syria,” Netanyahu said. “The risks of a confrontation between the IDF and the Russian army are not small, so the coordination between us requires constant maintenance. Both I and Russian President Putin view this that way, and this coordination will continue.”

Over the past year, since the beginning of the Russian military’s active involvement in the fighting in Syria, Moscow and Jerusalem have stepped up coordination significantly.

In that span, Netanyahu and Putin have met four times, and they speak by phone every few weeks. In early June, Netanyahu went to Moscow to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The drone incident marked the first time Israel opened fire at a Russian aircraft operating from Syria. In recent months Russian fighter planes mistakenly have flown into Israeli airspace from Syria several times. Each time Israeli aircraft tracked the planes but did not fire.

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