Benyamin Netanyahu holding up a piece of a shot down drone which supposedly stems from Iran during the 54th Munich Security Conference. Picture by Lennart Preiss/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu addressed the Munich Security Conference on 18 February 2018. Attacking Iran during his speech, he brandished what he claimed was a piece of a drone sent into Israeli airspace by Iran on 10 February 2018 and declared.
“Last week [Iran’s] brazenness reached new heights, literally new heights. It sent a drone into Israeli territory, violating Israel's sovereignty, threatening our security. … [I]t committed an act of aggression against Israel last week, … it sent a drone into our airspace to threaten our people.
One has to admire the Israeli Prime Minister’s audacity in his reaction to a single Iranian drone entering Israeli airspace from Syria, when, with his authority, Israeli aircrafts have violated Syrian sovereignty on about a hundred occasions in the past five years in the course of bombing targets in Syria (Haaretz, 17 August 2017) and Israeli aircraft violate Lebanese sovereignty on a daily basis (Report by UN Secretary-General, 16 November 2017).
The Prime Minister described this incursion into Israel airspace as an “act of aggression”. But, according to Chagai Tzuriel, Director General of Israel’s Intelligence Ministry, the incursion “was not an attack, but a test of the limits and rules” (Washington Post, 11 February 2018). And Haaretz reported on 13 February 2018:
“That it was an attack mission is unlikely, as no weapon or explosives have so far been found among the drone’s fragments, which are in Israel’s hands.”
So, it appears that Iran’s “act of aggression” against Israel was committed by an unarmed drone.
Israel has been a serial violator of the sovereignty of neighbouring states
While there have been a number of incursions into Israeli airspace since 2006 by Iranian-made drones, these were all operated by Hezbollah or Hamas. This is the first (and only) instance in which a drone directly operated by Iranian military personnel entered Israeli airspace and violated Israeli sovereignty (Haaretz, 13 February 2018).
By contrast, Israel has been a serial violator of the sovereignty of neighbouring states, especially Lebanon and Syria, over many years.
For example, in the 4-month period from 1 July to 30 October 2017, Israel violated Lebanon’s airspace 758 times for a total of 3,188 hours. This information is available in a report dated 16 November 2017 to the Security Council by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, which was passed at the end of Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006. The following is an extract:
“Israel continued to violate Lebanese airspace on a daily basis, in violation of resolution 1701 (2006) and Lebanese sovereignty. From 1 July to 30 October , UNIFIL [UN Interim Force in Lebanon] recorded 758 air violations, totalling 3,188 overflight hours, an increase of 80 per cent compared with the same period in 2016. Unmanned aerial vehicles were involved in over 93 per cent (707) of those violations; the remainder involved fighter or unidentified aircraft.
“UNIFIL protested all air violations to the Israel Defense Forces and urged their immediate cessation. The Government of Lebanon also protested the airspace violations to UNIFIL. Such violations of Lebanese sovereignty undermine the cessation of hostilities and efforts to reach a permanent ceasefire.”
So, Israel violated Lebanese sovereignty 758 times by overflights from 1 July to 30 October 2017, that is, on average more than six per day. Total overflight time in this period was 3,188 hours, which is longer than the period itself.
The Secretary-General’s report also points out that Israel is continuing to occupy Lebanese territory, albeit a small piece (“northern Ghajar and an adjacent area north of the Blue Line”) in violation of resolution 1701 and Lebanese sovereignty.
Israel has also violated Syrian sovereignty continuously for many years.
In June 1967, it took over the Syrian Golan Heights by force and has occupied them ever since in violation of Syrian sovereignty. In 1981, Israel annexed them. On 17 December 1981, the Security Council passed resolution 497, demanding that Israel reverse its annexation. Israel refused to do so and it remains in violation of resolution 497 to this day.
Since 2012, while the war has been going on in Syria, there have been regular press reports of Israeli air attacks on targets there. The targets were usually said to be convoys of weapons supplied by Iran on their way to Hezbollah in Lebanon, though in 2017 the targets seem to have been expanded.
In general, Israel refrained from commenting on the press reports of attacks when they appeared. However, in August 2017 Haaretz reported:
“Israel has attacked convoys bringing arms to Hezbollah and groups on several Israeli fronts dozens of times over the last five years, a top Israeli military commander has confirmed for the first time. The number of Israeli attacks on such convoys since 2012 is approaching triple digits, said Major General Amir Eshel, the outgoing commander of the Israel Air Force.” (Haaretz, 17 August 2017).
Israel has never pretended that any of these attacks were carried out in response to military action emanating from Syria and could therefore be justified as legitimate self-defense against Syrian aggression. So, Israel violated Syrian sovereignty nearly a hundred times since 2012 contrary to international law.
(Or was it thousands of times? The head of the Israeli Air Force Air Division, Brigadier General Amnon Ein Dar, said recently that the Israeli Defense Forces have “carried out thousands of missions in Syria in the last year alone”. (Ynet News, 11 February 2018))
Iranian threat to Israeli security
When Russia came to the aid of the Syrian regime at its request in September 2015, Israel was concerned that its freedom to bomb Syrian targets would be curtailed. Russia then controlled the skies along with the US and had air defence systems capable of preventing Israel bombing Syrian targets if it chose to do so. Since then Prime Minister Netanyahu has sought, and been granted, regular meetings with President Putin on this issue. Russia does not seem to have put restrictions on Israeli bombing in Syria, though presumably it demands advance notification.
Iranian forces – and its allies, Hezbollah and other Shi‘ite militias – are also in Syria at the request of the Syrian regime. Israel has always objected to their presence on the grounds that it constitutes a threat to Israeli security. But, over the past year or so, Israel’s objections have become more strident and threatening. Prime Minister Netanyahu has sought help from Russia and the US in an attempt to ensure that Iran and its allies would not have a permanent presence in Syria and, in the meantime, to keep them at a distance from the Israeli border.
But Israel’s entreaties have met with little success, not least because its closest ally, the US, is not in a position to have Iran and its allies expelled from Syria. According to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman (New York Times, 12 February 2018), when a high level Israeli delegation went to Washington in August 2017 and “demanded that any peace agreement in Syria require the removal of Hezbollah and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps troops from the country” the Trump administration “didn’t agree to deliver”.
Netanyahu declared that "Israel would operate in Syria how and when it sees fit"
Even Israel’s demand that Iran and its allies be kept away from its border has met with limited success. Thus, for example, Israel wanted the de-escalation agreement for southwest Syria signed by US, Russia and Jordan on 11 November 2017 to keep Iranian and allied forces 50 or 60 kilometres away from the border, but under the agreement the distance varies between 5 and 20 kilometres (Syria Deal Puts Iran Too Close to Israel’s Borders, Haaretz, 16 November 2017).
Furthermore, the agreement gave no commitment, let alone a timetable, for the removal of Iranian and allied forces from Syria altogether. Haaretz reported that “Israeli defense figures are troubled … by the fact that the superpowers seem unwilling to take genuine measures to kick Iran out of Syria in general, and southern Syria in particular.” On the contrary, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, asserted that “the presence of Iran in Syria is legitimate” and that “Russia has not promised to ensure a withdrawal of pro-Iranian forces from Syria” (Reuters, 14 November 2017).
In response, Netanyahu declared that “Israel would operate in Syria how and when it sees fit, regardless of the ceasefire agreement between the US, Russia and Jordan that Jerusalem complained fell significantly short of its security demands” (Ynet News, 13 November 2018). And over the next few months, Israel did just that, continuing to bomb military targets in Syria.
The drone effect
Then, on 10 February 2018, an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace from Syria and was shot down by an Israeli helicopter. According to spokesman Jonathan Conricus quoted in the Times of Israel, it was “on a military mission sent by Iranian military forces” from an “Iranian base” in the Palmyra area of Syria. In other words, it had been deliberately targeted at Israel and hadn’t crossed the border into Israel inadvertently, for example, while on a reconnaissance mission against Syrian opposition forces in southwest Syria.
Conricus told journalists: “This is the most blatant and severe Iranian violation of Israeli sovereignty in the last years.” It was, in fact, the only violation of Israeli sovereignty.
Israel responded by attacking what was said to be the Iranian base from which the drone had been launched. One of the eight attacking F-16 aircraft was brought down by Syrian air defence, to which Israel responded with further attacks on air defence and other military targets in Syria.
By Israel’s account, Iran deliberately sent an unarmed drone on a reconnaissance mission of some kind into Israeli air space on 10 February 2018. It had never done this before. It was almost certain the drone would be detected by Israel and identified as Iranian, which would enable Israel to portray Iran as an aggressor and to justify a military response of unknown extent. Would Iran have been so foolish as to play into Israel’s hands like that? I doubt it. Mostly likely, the drone arrived in Israeli airspace by accident.
A further point: Russia’s task of managing the battleground in Syria has been made more difficult by the predictable consequences of an Iranian drone entering Israeli air space. Iran would not have taken a decision to launch a drone into Israel without consulting Russia, which would have vetoed it.
However, whether or not Iran’s action was deliberate, this (one and only) violation of Israeli sovereignty by Iran was a godsend to Israel. Having asserted for years that the Iranian presence in Syria was a threat, at last Israel had something that could be presented to the world as evidence of Iranian “aggression” and used to justify an extensive bombing campaign against Iranian targets in Syria – which was almost certainly Israel’s intention had President Putin not intervened.
Putin’s phone call to Netanyahu
According to Amos Harel of Haaretz (Putin's Phone Call With Netanyahu Put End to Israeli Strikes in Syria, 15 February 2018), Russia vetoed further military action by Israel after the second wave of bombardments against Syrian targets, which was in response to the shooting down of an Israeli F-16 jet fighter.
At that point “senior Israeli officials were still taking a militant line and it seemed as if Jerusalem was considering further military action”, he writes, but “discussion of that ended not long after a phone call between Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu”.
Ronen Bergman agrees that “the response to the downing of the Israeli jet was intended to be a lot more violent.” (New York Times, 12 February 2018). According to him:
“Israel has long maintained contingency plans for a huge offensive operation in Syria. [When the F-16 was brought down], the generals took them out of the drawer. But the Iranians and the Syrians, along with their Lebanese ally Hezbollah, realized that something like that was in the offing, and let it be known that they would not let it happen without responding. The Israelis heard this, but were not deterred. The Israel Defense Forces went on to a war footing.
“It soon became clear, though, who is calling the shots. The Israeli bombardments of the air base had been dangerously close to Russian forces. A furious phone call on Saturday morning from President Vladimir Putin of Russia was enough to make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel cancel the plans.”
Russia’s public response was directed at Israel:
“We consider it necessary that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and other countries in the region be respected unconditionally. Creating threats to life and security of Russian service personnel, who are in the Syrian Arab Republic at the invitation of its legitimate government in order to assist the fight against terrorists, is absolutely unacceptable.”
It remains to be seen if Russia takes steps to curb future violations of Syrian sovereignty or provides its Syrian ally with the means to defend itself against further Israel violations.