Call them penetrating questions: The series of events surrounding the incursion and interception of an Iranian drone that crossed into Israel from Syria early last Saturday raises many matters of concern.
The Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle was speedily downed by an Israel Air Force Apache helicopter, but although Israeli jets successfully struck the drone’s command control site in the Homs desert, they were met with massive Syrian antiaircraft fire. In circumstances not yet entirely clear, an Israeli plane crashed on return. The pilot and navigator ejected just in time. Their F-16 plowed into the ground near Kibbutz Harduf in the Lower Galilee. The two Israeli airmen were evacuated to Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, one in serious condition and the other with light wounds.
The incident involved a crossing of redlines and it raised red flags.
One question which hovered in the air long after the drone had been downed was what was the purpose of the Iranian UAV flight. Some saw it as a test of Israeli responses; others as an attempt to draw Israel into the conflict (or an ambush) on the Syrian side of the border; or perhaps it was on an espionage mission.
Israel’s tiny size and the speed with which such incidents take place mean there is very little time to calculate intentions and risks in real-time.
One thing that was clear, however, is that Israel’s constant warning that Iran is building bases in Syria needs to be heeded. This was a turning point. It showed to what extent Iran, which does not have a border with Israel, is now nonetheless just over the border of the Jewish state; and how Syria – which does have a common border with Israel – is no longer a sovereign country but a patchwork of forces with different and competing interests.
And indeed the Sunni Arab response to the downing of the Iranian drone seems to have been quiet admiration.
During a live broadcast with Alhurra TV the following day, I was asked lots of questions, including whether this could escalate into war. The one question I hadn’t expected was “Who were the winners?”
War is not a game. It was not some kind of video entertainment. This is not a matter of winners and losers. We all stand to lose if war breaks out. But, as former IAF pilot and cross-cultural strategist Reuven Ben-Shalom noted in an opinion piece, more than restoring peace and quiet, “Israel’s ultimate goal is sustaining and protecting the homeland and Israeli citizens and residents.”
The last war between Israel and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza broke out, unexpectedly, in the summer of 2014. The chain of events started with Hamas kidnapping (and murdering) three Israeli teenagers, which led to huge search operations and mass arrests of Hamas operatives, many of them terrorists released in the Gilad Schalit swap. Hamas increased its rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel and ultimately it turned into a war no one wanted. Similarly, the Second Lebanon War started in 2006 after Hezbollah killed and abducted Israeli soldiers along the Lebanese border.
Had the Israeli pilot and navigator not survived last week’s incident, things could have quickly snowballed.
FOR THIS is one of the perverse secrets of Israel’s success. Despite the infighting, bickering and religious and political divides, the country comes together under threat and at times of war. And fallen or abducted soldiers are a rallying point. In a country which has mandatory military service, everyone knows a soldier and the general public identifies with them as children, neighbors, friends and extended family.
That two soldiers (and three civilians) are still being held in Gaza is a sore point that in its own way demonstrates this principle. Israel released more than 1,000 terrorists from prison in return for Schalit. No Israeli wants to go down that path again, but our enemies are very well aware of the high price we have paid in the past. The purpose of the terror tunnels from Gaza into the Negev is partly aimed at facilitating the abduction of Israeli soldiers or civilians who are worth a great deal, dead or alive.
Israeli solidarity has not gone unnoticed further afield. In an extraordinary interview broadcast on the Kuwaiti Alrai TV channel in November, writer Abdullah al-Hadlaq praised Israel and, in answer to a question, recalled the article he had written when Schalit was kidnapped in 2006 saying: “I wished that we could be like the people of the State of Israel, who rallied, down to the very last one, to defend a single Israeli soldier.”
Hadlaq, who favors a form of peaceful coexistence with Israel, also noted that Israel is playing a role in the fight against Iran. “The Persian regime boasts that it has occupied four Arab capitals [Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa]...,” he said. “Has Israel ever said such a thing? Has it boasted about occupying anything? No, because it never occupied anything. Israel came to its own land, whereas the Iranian Persian entity is a plunderer....
“I support the establishment of a three-way alliance, consisting of Israel, the Arab Gulf states and America, in order to annihilate Hezbollah beyond resurrection.” (The interview with the exceptionally brave Kuwaiti writer can be seen with English subtitles on the site of MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute.)
THIS WEEK I was also reminded of the opinion expressed last July by a Saudi cleric (also available via MEMRI). Writing in the Riyadh-based Al-Jazirah newspaper, columnist Dr. Jasser al-Harbash voiced envy of the Israeli justice system.
“Ehud Olmert was prime minister of Israel and before that mayor of Jerusalem, but his history of service to his people did not help him when he was convicted of forgery and fraud, and he was sentenced to three years in prison. Before Olmert, [the Israelis] jailed the president of their country, [Moshe] Katsav, for ... rape,” Harbash wrote. Unlike Hadlaq, however, he sees Israel as an oppressor.
A series of interviews on Channel 1’s nightly news broadcast this week showed Palestinian terrorist prisoners and ex-prisoners in Israeli jails, some of whom admitted their conditions were incomparably better than those of prisoners from rival factions in Palestinian jails.
It is too early to say what will be the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the publication this week of the police recommendations to the attorney-general that he be indicted. In any case, the wheels of Israeli justice grind slowly.
When I was asked on Alhurra about the loss of the Israeli jet, I noted that even without loss of life, it was definitely a blow. Footage of scattered wreckage did not look good. But there was no loss of deterrence, I noted. Unlike the public in Iran and Syria, Israelis were able to see what harm had been caused (comparatively little in the scale of things) and were free to discuss the incident, including to criticize how it was handled. President Reuven Rivlin rushed to the hospital beds of the wounded airmen to offer support and wishes for a speedy recovery.
As I have noted before, Israelis cringe at the thought of all the former ministers and MKs who are familiar with prisons from the wrong side of the bars, but their convictions for criminal – not political – offenses are the exact opposite of the sort of repression that our neighbors, near and far, know and fear. Israelis are well aware that the strength of our democracy, and our solidarity, are worth defending. We just wish they weren’t tested so frequently.