JERUSALEM – Israel shot down a drone Thursday as it approached its northern coast from neighboring Lebanon, raising suspicions that the Hezbollah militant group was behind the infiltration attempt.
Hezbollah denied involvement, but the incident was likely to heighten Israeli concerns that the Shiite militant group is trying to take advantage of the unrest in neighboring Syria to strengthen its capabilities.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in a helicopter in northern Israel at the time of the incident, said he viewed it with utmost gravity.
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the unmanned aircraft was detected as it was flying over Lebanon and tracked as it approached Israeli airspace. He said the military waited for the aircraft to enter Israeli airspace, confirmed it was enemy, and then an F-16 warplane shot it down.
Other military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to talk to the media, said they believed it was an Iranian-manufactured aircraft sent by Hezbollah.
When Israeli military shot down a Hezbollah drone in October, it took days for Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah to confirm it. He warned in a speech that it wouldn’t be the last operation by the group. He said the sophisticated aircraft was made in Iran and assembled by Hezbollah.
Netanyahu repeatedly has warned that Hezbollah, a bitter enemy that battled Israel to a stalemate during a monthlong war in 2006, might try to take advantage of the instability in neighboring Syria, a key Hezbollah ally, to obtain what he calls game-changing weapons.
Israel has all but confirmed that it carried out an airstrike in Syria this year that destroyed a shipment of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah.
Israel’s military has also stepped up its air surveillance over Lebanon.
Thursday morning, Israeli warplanes flew over the Christian town of Jezzine and the highlands of the Iqlim al-Tuffah province, a Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon, the country’s state-run National News Agency reported.