The Israeli military said it shot down an unmanned aircraft above the Israeli-held section of the Golan Heights, a plateau that’s become more volatile with Syrian rebels’ gains and confrontations with United Nations peacekeepers.
Hours before a Patriot missile brought down the aircraft, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that his country was ready to combat threats to its security on all fronts, including the Golan. At Israel’s first cabinet meeting since an Aug. 26 truce ending 50 days of Gaza Strip fighting, the prime minister said he hoped “the quiet that has been restored will continue to prevail for a long time.”
“But we are ready for any scenario, not just on that front, but also other fronts, including the Golan,” he said. Israel captured the southern section of the plateau from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it 14 years later in a move that isn’t internationally recognized.
Syrian rebel advances near Israel’s northern frontier have unsettled the area, which has been largely quiet since Israel and Syria last warred four decades ago. Last week, Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda, including the al-Nusra Front, took control of the Syrian side of the Quneitra crossing into the Israel-held section of the Golan, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Armed men on the Syrian side of the Golan yesterday attacked United Nations peacekeepers who were later extricated, and al-Nusra said today that 45 peacekeepers it seized near Quneitra last week were safe. They were captured because the UN hasn’t protected rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the group said, without stipulating terms for their release.
Islamic State has captured vast swaths of northern Iraq and territory in Syria in its campaign to establish a Muslim caliphate erasing the borders between the two nations.
Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said the unmanned aircraft was downed after breaching Israeli airspace near Quneitra. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Israel wouldn’t allow any assault on its sovereignty, its civilians or its soldiers, “deliberate or not.”
“Recent weeks have proven that we’re losing patience with attempts to attack us,” Ya’alon said in an e-mailed statement from his office. “If someone tests us, we will respond aggressively.”
Neither he nor the military said who might have dispatched the aircraft. An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the army hasn’t changed its deployment in the north.
While Israel reinforced the security fence along its northern frontier because of more than three years of fighting in Syria, “it’s clear that once the border on the other side is controlled by a radical group, it’s a new reality,” Amos Gilad, a senior Defense Ministry official, told Israel Radio before the aircraft was shot down. The threat to Israel isn’t immediate because Israel prepared for it, though “we obviously have to be on alert,” Gilad said.
Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, writing in the New York Times, called for a “global coalition” against Islamist extremists who are “perilously close to Israel.” In an interview with Channel 2 TV yesterday, Netanyahu said he decided “not to invest all my resources” in Gaza at a time when “the Islamic State is galloping toward us, al-Qaeda is on the Golan borders.” Netanyahu has faced criticism at home from detractors who said he should have struck harder at Gaza’s Hamas militant rulers.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, in an interview on CNN today, said Israel “must deliberate” its position regarding Hamas. “I think that we have enough force to finish this story and to topple this terrorist organization,” he said. “I don’t see any differences” between Hamas and Islamic State and al-Qaeda, he added.
The Gaza conflict has spurred talk about the possibility of renewing Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking in its wake. Today, the Palestinians condemned the Israeli Defense Ministry’s decision to declare almost 1,000 acres of West Bank territory near Jerusalem as “state land,” a designation that under Israeli law allows for settlement construction.
“This decision, which leads to a further deterioration of the situation, must be blocked,” Nabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement. Any construction would have to undergo an approval process that could take years.
The fighting in Gaza erupted several months after the latest round of peacemaking collapsed. Palestinians see the West Bank as the core of a future state that would also include Gaza and east Jerusalem.