JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel said a military drone crashed in southern Lebanon on Sunday as regional tensions ran high, days after a series of cross-border exchanges between Israel and Syria and the killing of a Hezbollah militant in an Israeli airstrike near the Syrian capital.
The Israeli military issued the statement shortly after Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with army brass near the country’s northern frontier. The military said the drone went down over Lebanese territory “during operational activities” along the border. Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported that Israeli warplanes and drones flew over southern Lebanon throughout Sunday.
Israel has beefed up its troop presence along the borders with Lebanon and Syria since Friday’s strikes on Syrian army positions. Israel says those strikes were in response to unspecified munitions fired on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The exchanges came after Monday’s air raid on Damascus — believed to have been carried out by Israel — that killed five foreign fighters, including a member of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran.
Gantz said in a statement that Israel “has no interests in Syria or Lebanon, aside from security interests, and we will continue to protect them.
“We are not seeking unnecessary escalation, but if we are tested — we have high operative capacity, which I hope we will not need to put to use,” Gantz said.
Israel and Hezbollah fought to a draw in a month-long war in Lebanon in 2006. Hezbollah has previously vowed to respond to the killing of its forces in Syria.
Earlier Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country was “acting according to our consistent policy of not allowing Iran to entrench itself militarily on our northern border.” He said Lebanon and Syria “bear responsibility for any attack against Israel emanating from their territories.”
Israel has long considered Iran a regional nemesis because of its nuclear program — which Iran insists is for peaceful purposes only — as well as Iran’s military presence in Syria supporting President Bashar Assad, and its backing of armed groups like Hezbollah.
Israel has carried out scores of airstrikes in Syria in recent years targeting Iranian forces there, and has targeted what Israel says are weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Israeli military rarely comments on these strikes.
Deputy Hezbollah leader Naim Kassem told the Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV station that the group received a message through the United Nations representative in Lebanon after last week’s airstrike near the Syrian capital in which the Hezbollah operative was killed.
“We did not give an answer and we will not reveal the content of the message,” Kassim said, without directly stating the message was from Israel. He declined to comment on whether Hezbollah is planning to carry out an attack in retaliation for the death of its operative in Syria last week.
Kassim said he does not expect war with Israel in the coming months, but added that if Israel starts a war, Hezbollah is ready to fight back.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.