Objects are seen in the sky above Jerusalem after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel on April 14, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

Tehran: Iran launched attack drones and missiles against Israel in apparent retaliation for a strike in Syria that killed top Iranian military officers, marking what’s likely to prove an unprecedented attack that raises the risk of a wider regional conflict.

Israel’s armed forces announced late Saturday that Iran launched attacks from within its territory toward Israel and that Israeli forces are on high alert. With the expectation that it may take hours for the drones and missiles to arrive, Israel said it would shut down its airspace starting at half past midnight, for both domestic and international flights.

Iran's mission to the United Nations said the action was a "legitimate" defensive response to the strike in Damascus, which Israel hasn't acknowledged carrying out. "The matter can be deemed concluded," it said in a social media post. "However, should the Israeli regime make another mistake, Iran's response will be considerably more severe."

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A former Israel Defence Forces spokesman, Jonathan Conricus, said: “This is day one of the new Middle East — for the first time Iran is attacking Israel directly from sovereign Iranian soil”.

He told BBC: “Israeli air defences are busy taking out these threats”.

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When asked if Israel had planned for this, he said: “I think Israel is good at planning military contingencies, but they don’t always excel at the strategic part. I didn’t expect the Iranians to do this, from Iranian soil. It will drag other countries, including the US, into the conflict.” “I think there are a few plans in the drawers, looking at targets in Iran”.

He said those targets would probably be sites “concerned with arming various terror groups, such as Hezbollah, Iranian proxies in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen”.

“It depends how much damage will be done in Israel - that will be the measure of how Israel will retaliate,” he told BBC.

Earlier Saturday, US President Joe Biden had cut short a weekend trip to the Delaware coast and flew back to Washington for an emergency meeting at the White House with his top national security officials.

He posted a picture of the meeting in the wood-paneled White House Situation Room with officials including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns.

Biden's handling of the Middle East conflict will also be under scrutiny in a US presidential election year.

Biden said US forces helped Israel shoot down nearly all the drones and missiles fired by Iran Saturday, but appeared to guide the key US ally away from retaliating against Tehran by saying Israel had now shown its strength.

Biden calls Netanyahu

Biden added that he was convening fellow G7 leaders on Sunday to coordinate a diplomatic response against Tehran, in another sign that he is trying to avoid any further military escalation that could ignite a wider Middle East conflict.

The US president said he had called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reaffirm Washington's "ironclad" support for Israel, after recent tense relations over Israel's war in Gaza.

"I told him that Israel demonstrated a remarkable capacity to defend against and defeat even unprecedented attacks - sending a clear message to its foes that they cannot effectively threaten the security of Israel," he said.

He said he had ordered US military aircraft and ballistic missile defense destroyers to the Middle East in recent days, as the likely threat following a presumed Israeli strike on Iranians in Damascus became clear.

"Thanks to these deployments and the extraordinary skill of our servicemembers, we helped Israel take down nearly all of the incoming drones and missiles," Biden said.

Multiple alarms sounded in various locations in Israel: Jerusalem, Beer Sheva and Dimona in the south, and the Jewish settlement Ariel in the West Bank. Residents of Jerusalem reported hearing blasts. Alarms also sounded in Israel’s north. The Israel Defence Forces said it cut off GPS services in some areas to help counter the attack.

A US defence official confirmed that its forces in the region shot down Iranian-launched drones targeting Israel. The US considered the military response to the Iranian attack a success, another American official familiar with the matter said.

The UK Defence Ministry said it deployed Royal Air Force jets to intercept Iranian drones headed for Israel if necessary.

Israel has upgraded its air defences considerably over the past decade and a half, adding new systems for interceptions of ballistic missiles fired from as far away as 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles). That range includes Yemen, Syria and Iraq, where militant groups allied with Iran are based, as well as Iran.

Israel’s most active and well-known air defense is Iron Dome, which has intercepted thousands of rockets fired by Palestinian militants in Gaza since 2011. But Iron Dome is designed for missiles and drones with a short range, and is just one of the advanced missile-defense systems in place.

Israel also has a medium-to-long-range interceptor known as David’s Sling and the Arrow defence system.

Trump reaction

Former US president Donald Trump, Biden's rival in November's election, said the Democratic incumbent was showing "weakness."

"God bless the people of Israel. They are under attack right now. That's because we show great weakness," Republican Trump said at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania.

The US confirmed that Iran had begun an airborne attack against Israel and said it was likely to unfold over “a number of hours.”

“President Biden has been clear: Our support for Israel’s security is ironclad,” White House spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement. “The United States will stand with the people of Israel and support their defence against these threats from Iran.”