JERUSALEM — Israel’s military said it shot down a Syrian fighter jet Tuesday after the aircraft strayed less than a mile into airspace that Israel controls over the Golan Heights.
The Syrian government made no official condemnation. The Syrian crew safely ejected. Israeli officials said they assumed that the warplane had made a mistake, albeit one they would not allow to go unpunished.
Military experts in Israel said it was the first time in nearly 30 years that Israel downed a Syrian attack aircraft, although a Syrian drone that entered Israeli-occupied territory last month was shot down.
The incident reflects how the Golan — captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war — is increasingly being drawn into the tensions in war-torn Syria amid the growing reach of Islamist militants who now control more than 90 percent of the Syria-Israel frontier.
The Israeli army fired a U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air missile at the Syrian jet, a Soviet-made Sukhoi-24. According to the Israeli military, the two Syrian crew members ejected and came down safely inside Syria. Local media reported that the aircraft crashed near the Syrian town of Quneitra, which is controlled by rebels linked to al-Qaeda.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) quoted an anonymous Syrian military official as saying that by shooting down a Syrian jet, Israel was showing support for terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Moshe Maoz, a Syria expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said the Syrian government has its hands full and will likely not respond in any meaningful way to the downing of its warplane — in part out of fear of what a tough Israeli response could do to Syrian air bases.
Since the civil war started in Syria more than three years ago, fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights has regularly spilled over onto the Israeli side. The United Nations has monitored a demilitarized buffer zone in the area for 40 years.
The Israeli military said it appeared that the Syrian warplane was targeting not Israel, but rebel forces that last month captured strategic points along the frontier between Israel and Syria.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon warned: “We won’t allow anybody, whether it’s a state or a terrorist organization, to threaten our security and violate our sovereignty.”
Ram Shmueli, a brigadier general in the Israeli reserves and a former head of Israel’s air force intelligence, said Israel is facing threats all along its northern borders.
“We are very much on alert to all types of drones, jets and airplanes, even civilian airliners like those used during 9/11,” said Shmueli, a fighter pilot for more than 35 years. “Although we are not part of this war, we have to keep the borders safe.”