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Hezbollah downs Israeli drone in ongoing tension between Iranian-backed groups and Israel

On Sept. 9, Hezbollah said it downed an Israeli drone in southern Lebanon, the latest flare-up raising tensions between the Iran-backed group and Israel. (Video: Reuters)

JERUSALEM — Hezbollah announced Monday it downed an Israeli drone in southern Lebanon, part of a string of clashes between Israel and Iranian-backed groups throughout the region.

The Israeli army also said early Monday that Iran’s elite Quds Force oversaw the firing of several rockets from Syria toward Israel, none of which managed to reach its target.

The rocket attacks follow reports from Syrian opposition activists that several Iranians and allied militias were killed by airstrikes in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border. It was not immediately clear who carried out these strikes, although Israel has attacked Iranian targets in Syria throughout the country’s civil war.

In recent weeks, Israel has struck targets in Syria, Lebanon and allegedly Iraq to stop Iran from distributing sophisticated weapons within striking distance of its borders.

On the cusp of a contentious election that could seal his political fate next week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented evidence Monday of what he claimed was an additional Iranian nuclear site that Israel discovered and that Iran subsequently destroyed in July, once it learned that Israel had ascertained its whereabouts.

“This is what I have to say to the tyrants of Tehran: Israel knows what you’re doing. Israel knows when you’re doing it. And Israel knows where you’re doing it,” Netanyahu told reporters in Jerusalem.

Hezbollah’s downing of a drone was seen as a possible retaliation for an earlier strike that the Lebanese Shiite militant group blamed on Israel and that the Israeli government has yet to deny.

Although limited, that action — and the firing of rockets from Syria — could be the latest salvos in the simmering tensions between Israel and Shiite-led Iran, Hezbollah’s chief sponsor.

In a statement, Hezbollah said its operatives shot down the Israeli drone outside the village of Ramyeh, across the border from northern Israel. It said the drone “is now in their hands.”

The Israeli army confirmed in a statement that the drone was shot down “on a routine mission in northern Israel” and that it “fell into Lebanese territory.” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli army, declined to comment on the specific nature of the drone’s activities in Lebanon or say whether Israel was involved in the strikes on Syrian territory.

“There is no risk of breach of information,” the statement said.

As for the rockets fired from Syria, the Israel Defense Forces said they were launched from the outskirts of Damascus by Shiite militia operatives under the auspices of Iran’s Quds Force, the special operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“The IDF holds the Syrian regime responsible for all events taking place in Syria,” a separate statement said.

Hezbollah retaliates against Israel with a missile; Israel fires back at Lebanon

The Hezbollah strike came after its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, had promised retaliation for strikes late last month, attributed to Israel, in which a Hezbollah office in the southern suburbs of Beirut was damaged. One drone detonated at the target, while a second crashed.

In the aftermath of that attack, Nasrallah promised that Hezbollah would shoot down an Israeli drone, but he did not provide a clear time frame.

“I tell the Israeli army on the border — be prepared and wait for us,” he said in his address.

Hezbollah had retaliated on Sept. 1 for the killing of two of its commanders in an Israeli airstrike in Syria the previous weekend. The militant group fired antitank missiles into northern Israel, which prompted Israel to fire volleys of artillery against three Lebanese villages in an intense but brief counter.

Although neither side reported casualties, the skirmish represented the first exchange of fire on the Israeli-Lebanese border since 2006, when Hezbollah and Israel fought a month-long war.

The question of Iran — and specifically, of thwarting its nuclear program — remains a signature policy priority for Netanyahu, who has come to see a future meeting between President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as an increasingly likely prospect.

Trump — who withdrew, much to Netanyahu’s delight, from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement — said late last month that he would be open to the possibility of discussions with Iran, following the surprise, last-minute visit of Iran’s foreign minster, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France. Netanyahu has been on guard ever since: Last week, he flew to London on a snap visit, nominally to meet with new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but also to confer with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper.

On Monday, Netanyahu was careful to appeal to Trump’s earlier hard-line positions.

“I call on the international community to join President Trump’s sanctions to exert more pressure on Iran,” he said. “The only way to stop Iran’s march to the bomb and its immersion in the region is pressure, pressure and more pressure.”

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