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Hezbollah Sends a Message With Three Unarmed Drones Over Israel's Maritime Zone

The unmanned aircraft, which flew above the Karish gas-drilling platform on Saturday before being downed by Israel's military, were more warning than offensive mission

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The Karish gas field, some 80 km west of Haifa.
The Karish gas field, some 80 km west of Haifa.Credit: IDF Spokesperson
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

What were three Hezbollah drones doing over Israel’s exclusive maritime economic zone midday on Saturday, coming perilously close to Israel’s new gas drilling platform Karish? The IDF believes it was not an offensive mission. When the three drones were successfully downed, no secondary explosions were noticed, which showed they were not carrying explosives.

Hezbollah’s actions appear to be more of a declaration of intent. The platform was put in place a few weeks ago, south of the maritime border with Lebanon. Senior officials in Lebanon’s government expressed their reservations, claiming (falsely) that Israel had penetrated Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah issued some threats against Israel on this matter. The two governments recently resumed their talks over a more precise determination of the boundary, with American mediation. The insistence of Lebanon’s government not to settle the matter is delaying the search for gas in fields lying further north that are definitely within its territory, even though the impoverished country desperately needs energy sources of its own.

One may assume that in dispatching these drones, Hezbollah meant to issue a warning to Israel, or that it wanted to publish photos showing its ability to harm a critical Israeli economic asset. Iran, which supports Hezbollah and coordinates with it much of the organization’s operations, has proven its extensive destructive capabilities, such as using the Houthis in Yemen to carry out drone attacks against large oil installations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Hezbollah’s attempt was foiled by close coordination between the Israeli air force, navy and intelligence units. The drones flew at a relatively low speed and low altitude, making it difficult to detect them. However, all three were detected. One was downed by an F-16 jet and two by naval missile boats, using a new missile system called “Barak 8.” The navy chalked up its first operational success with this system, proving the system’s effectiveness, something that will definitely increase the interest of other countries in purchasing these missiles.

A tugboat pulling an Energean Floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) ship along Egypt's Suez Canal on Friday, en route to the Karish gas field.Credit: AFP

It turned out that in this case, the defense establishment read the situation well, with advance planning of an envelope of protection deployed around Israel’s gas-drilling platforms. The temptation for Hezbollah and Iran is simply too great. One should assume that they will try again in the event of a war in Lebanon or a direct clash between Israel and Iran.

In general, Iranian involvement on Israel’s northern front is clear and obvious. It seems Saturday’s incident is tied to the overall picture, in which Israel and Iran have increased attacks of varying magnitudes on each other. Iran attributed the assassination of a senior Revolutionary Guard officer last May to Israel, and tried unsuccessfully to attack Israeli citizens in Turkey throughout June. Over recent weeks it seems that mutual cyber attacks have also increased, with damage to both sides.

Another front is in play in Syria. On Saturday, an unusual Israeli attack was reported, in broad daylight and in the northwest of the country, south of Tartus Port. The rare timing and location of the attack indicate an apparent immediate need to thwart a weapons shipment smuggled into Syria. Recently there has been talk of Iran attempting to upgrade Syrian and Hezbollah aerial defense capabilities. The Israel Air Force has been troubled for years by enemy attempts to narrow its range of operations on the northern front.

All this is happening on the watch of a prime minister who just delivered his first address to the nation Saturday night, less than four months before Election Day. Lapid accumulated diplomatic and security experience as a senior member of the cabinet over the past year (and before that for two years as finance minister under Netanyahu). He is also surrounded by experienced security leadership, from Defense Minister Benny Gantz to the heads of the security organizations.

And yet, it is hard to rule it out that Israel’s adversaries are testing the resolve of the transition government over the near future. It has happened to new prime ministers in the past. Benjamin Netanyahu ran into trouble opening the Western Wall Tunnel shortly after assuming office in 1996; Ehud Olmert rashly overreacted to the kidnapping of reserve soldiers by Hezbollah in 2006, got mired in the Second Lebanon War and never really recovered. Lapid, entering a tumultuous elections campaign, will have to devote considerable time and attention to the security situation as well.

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