Amman, Jordan: A pair of Israeli drones went down in the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Sunday morning, according to officials and eye witnesses, in what appeared to be another salvo in Israel’s expanding campaign against Iran and its regional affiliates.
In recent weeks, Israeli forces have reportedly attacked a base in Iraq being used by Iranian forces as well as locations in Syria that Israeli officials said were being used by Iran to transfer advanced weapons to allied groups that could use them to threaten Israel’s borders. Here is what has happened:
Where did the drones land?
The first drone fell in the Moawwad neighborhood in Beirut’s southern suburbs, said the Lebanese army, while the second, which was equipped with explosives, detonated around 2:30 in the morning and caused “material damage.”
An army team cordoned off the site and “took the necessary procedures,” said the statement from army officials.
Local activists shared pictures on social media purporting to be of the drone after a resident had thrown rocks at it to bring it down. Roughly thirty minutes later, a second drone appeared in the same area equipped with explosives, said Hezbollah spokesman Mohammad Afif.
The drone detonated with a powerful blast that knocked out one of Hezbollah’s media offices.
The group said there were no casualties, but a correspondent for the state-run National News Agency said three people inside the media center were lightly injured.
Images broadcast by local TV channels from inside the media office showed a room in disarray, with glass fragments blanketing damaged furniture adorned with promotional pictures of Iranian and Lebanese Shiite religious figures.
Afif said the group had taken possession of the downed drone and that it was analyzing its trajectory and the targets of its reconnaissance.
Activists identified it as a commercially produced DJI Matrice drone, which according to the company website has a maximum operational range of three miles.
Beirut is roughly 60 miles north of the Israeli border.
“It’s possible the drone was launched from the sea,” said Afif, adding that the targeted area was some two miles from the coast.
State media reported intense Israeli drone activity on Sunday in the wake of the incident.
The Israeli army refused to comment on the incident near Beirut, but a person familiar with the army’s analysis, who was not authorized to speak for attribution, said the video showed the same type of drones that have been used by Iranian proxy Shiite Houthi rebel groups in Yemen and during attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
How did Lebanese politicians react?
Lebanon’s normally fractious politicians were united in denouncing the attack. Lebanese President Michel Aoun described the incident as a “blatant aggression on Lebanese sovereignty” and a part of a “continuing series of violations” as well as “additional proof of Israel’s aggressive intentions.”
“Lebanon... will take the appropriate measures after consulting with the concerned parties,” Aoun said in the statement.
Israeli drones and warplanes regularly breach Lebanon’s airspace, prompting Lebanon to complain to the United Nations, but with little effect. The country has a small air force comprised of helicopters and turboprop light attack aircraft.
The drones, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said in a statement on Sunday, were “a threat to regional stability and an attempt to push the situation towards more tension.”
What was attacked in Syria?
The incident came hours after Israel’s military said it had thwarted an imminent attack by Iran and its proxies with airstrikes that targeted an area south of the Syrian capital, Damascus, near its airport.
The attack, said Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, was to involve “killer drones,” which carry explosives and act as guided missiles.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency quoted an unnamed military source who said authorities had tracked multiple missiles approaching Damascus from the occupied Golan Heights and that air defense systems had downed “most of the Israeli aggressor missiles before they reached their targets.”
But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition activist group that monitors developments in Syria, said two Hezbollah members as well as an Iranian militiaman were killed in the strike.
Pro-Hezbollah activists on social media uploaded pictures of what were said to be the dead Hezbollah operatives.
For years, Israel has targeted sites in Syria which it says are being used by Iran to transfer advanced weapons to its affiliated forces within range of Israel’s borders
This is the first time, however, that Israel has accused Iran of attempting such a large-scale attack on Israeli territory. Had such an attack taken place, it could have triggered an all-out war.
Reacting to the Lebanon strikes, , Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah called them “a very, very dangerous violation,” and said Hezbollah would strike back from Lebanon in retaliation for that attack in Beirut and the deaths of Hezbollah members in Syria.
Hezbollah will also try to down any of the Israeli drones that routinely fly over Lebanon, he said. He warned Israelis living in northern Israel to brace for Hezbollah attacks on Israeli territory.
“This is a new phase imposed by the enemy, and we are up for it,” he said in the speech delivered by video to crowds of cheering Hezbollah supporters in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. “What happened last night will not happen without response.”
What is Hezbollah?
Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group that first emerged during Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon in the 1980s, has developed into a dominant force in Lebanese politics as well as an armed group viewed by many as being more effective than the Lebanese army.
It fought against Israel again in 2006 in a war in which almost 1,200 civilians were killed and large swaths of Beirut’s Shiite areas and the country’s southern region were devastated. Though the battle ended in a stalemate, it was seen as a victory for Hezbollah.
More recently, its cadres have bolstered forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, an Iranian ally who since 2011 has fought an armed rebellion against his rule.
Why is Israel expanding its strikes to Iraq and Lebanon?
In recent weeks, that campaign’s footprint has expanded to include Iraq, where Israel was accused of bombing an Iranian-controlled base near Baghdad, and now Lebanon.
“We will continue to take determined and responsible action against Iran and its proxies for the security of Israel,” tweeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday in a rare public acknowledgment of the attack on Syria.
“I reiterate: Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression.”
In a briefing for journalists, Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said that “Qassem Suleimani, the al-Quds commander, himself directed the [thwarted] attack and personally training Shiite militias preparing for it.”
Former National Security Advisor of Israel Yaakov Amidror, a retired military intelligence officer, said that “Israel is now in the middle of a long effort to stop the Iranians from building their independent war machine in Syria. They have one in Lebanon, controlled by Hezbollah, and they want to build an independent one in Syria which will be controlled by Iran directly.”
Amidror did not comment on the incident near Beirut except to note that “Hezbollah has many enemies.”
The expanded targets mark an escalation in a steadily intensifying confrontation between Israel and the Iranian-backed militias that have expanded their reach across the Middle East in recent years. Taken together, they signal a “new era” in Israel’s attempt to roll back Iran’s presence in the region, said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
“The Israelis are telling everyone that they are expanding the scope of their attacks against Iran and its allies,” Khashan said. “The fact that these attacks occurred ushers in a new stage in the confrontation between Israel on the one hand and Iran and its allies on the other. Israel is showing it is determined to prevent Iran from expanding its influence in the Middle East.”