JERUSALEM/BEIRUT • Israel launched heavy air strikes in Syria, while the Syrian army claimed to have brought down an Israeli F-16 after the Israelis intercepted an Iranian drone that penetrated their airspace from Syria.
The events yesterday appeared to be Israel's first direct engagement with Iranian forces across the increasingly volatile boundary in the Golan Heights, risking a new escalation in Syria's multifaceted seven-year war in the area.
The chain of events on Saturday began at 4.30am (10.30am Singapore time) when an Israeli Apache helicopter shot down an Iranian drone over the northern town of Beit Shean, the Israeli military said.
The drone had been sighted taking off from a base in Syria, and was intercepted after it crossed into Israeli territory, said Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman.
Israeli planes, including at least eight jets, then struck an Iranian installation in Syria which the Israeli military said operated the unmanned aircraft.
One of those planes, a United States-made F-16, crashed on its return from that mission, landing in an empty field near near the northern Israeli village of Harduf, and one of the pilots was injured as they ejected, the Israeli military said.
It said early assessments indicated that the jet had been shot down by Syrian fire, but this was still unconfirmed.
"We are willing, prepared and capable to exact a heavy price from anyone that attacks us. However, we are not looking to escalate the situation," a spokesman said.
It marked the most serious confrontation yet in Syria between Israel and Iranian and Iran-backed forces that have established a major foothold in the country while fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war.
Iran's expanding clout during the war, including deployments of Iran-backed forces like Lebanon's Hizbollah near the Golan frontier, has raised alarm in Israel, which has said it would act against any threat from its regional arch-enemy, Teheran.
Israel's air force has aimed at Syrian military and Hizbollah targets in Syria on an almost regular basis, but its attacks yesterday appeared to be the most intense yet.
Iran, along with Russia - which had helped prop up the Assad government - denied that any of its drones had entered Israeli air space or that they had any role in shooting down the Israeli jet. Russia called for "restraint" from all sides.
The semi-official Iranian news agency Isna quoted Revolutionary Guards deputy commander Hossein Salam as saying: "We can destroy all American bases in the region."
The Shi'ite Muslim Hizbollah group said the downing of the Israeli jet marked the "start of a new strategic phase" which would limit Israeli exploitation of Syrian airspace. "Today's developments mean the old equations have categorically ended," the heavily-armed movement said in a statement.
Hizbollah and Israel last fought a major conflict in 2006.
Tensions have also spiked across the frontier between Israel and Lebanon over Israeli plans for a border wall, and Lebanese plans to exploit an offshore energy block which is partly located in disputed waters.
US President Donald Trump's administration has backed Israel's hawkish stance on Iran, and declared containing Teheran's influence an objective of its Syria policy.
Air raid sirens sounded in the early morning of the Jewish sabbath in northern Israel and flights at Tel Aviv's international airport were briefly halted.
The frontier fell quiet by mid-afternoon.