JERUSALEM — A drone aircraft that entered Israeli airspace earlier this week was apparently on a mission to take pictures of the Dimona nuclear research center in southern Israel, Israeli officials confirmed Friday.
What the aircraft managed to learn and whether it transmitted its observations to a remote facility was not immediately known. Israeli officials have said the aircraft was launched from southern Lebanon and was shot down “some time” after it entered Israeli air space. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, says that its technicians assembled the aircraft from parts provided by Iran.
“This was a crude device, but it was a drone with all the capabilities that unmanned aerial crafts offer, and for that reason it is worrying,” an Israeli military official told McClatchy under the condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to discuss sensitive information with a reporter. “We are studying the drone now to learn more about what it accomplished and what Hezbollah intended with it.”
The drone was the third unmanned aircraft Hezbollah has dispatched over Israel. Israeli officials said it was the most sophisticated to date. According to the initial account of its downing, the aircraft entered Israeli airspace from the Mediterranean and traveled about 35 miles before it was shot down. Dimona, where Israel is believed to assemble its nuclear weapons, is about 45 miles from the Israeli coast.
Whatever its mission and capabilities, the drone marked another escalation in Israel’s conflict with Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. Israel believes Iran is attempting to build a nuclear weapon, a charge Iran denies, and has threatened to bomb that country’s nuclear facilities to prevent it from developing the technology to build one.
Whether Iran would contemplate attacking Dimona in response to Israeli actions is unknown, but at a minimum, the presence of an Iranian drone near the Dimona nuclear facility would seem to be a taunt that whatever Israel might do, Iran is capable of doing as well.
Hasan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, proudly claimed the downed aircraft in a speech Thursday. “It is our right to send other drones whenever we want,” he said. “It was not the first time and it will not be the last.”
Nasrallah said that the drone had been designed in Iran and assembled by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that Hezbollah was responsible for the drone, telling reporters that Israel would “act with determination to defend its borders at sea, on air and land," just as it had "thwarted Hezbollah’s attempt” to send an unmanned aircraft into Israeli airspace.
Netanyahu, who spoke during a tour of Israel’s southern border, was seconded by Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, who later told Israel radio that the drone had “failed on its mission.”
He said that the drone had been spotted and was monitored by the Israeli military for several minutes before being shot down over an uninhabited zone in southern Israel.
The Israeli military official who spoke to McClatchy, however, said it was possible that the drone had captured and transmitted imagery of the area around Israel’s nuclear research center at Dimona.
“Iran’s technology and ability to make drones has improved in recent years, and whatever they have been developing they have shared with Hezbollah,” said the Israeli military official. “They know that through Hezbollah and other allies in the region they can send a message to Israel.”
Iranian officials were quoted in their state media as saying that the drone’s ability to enter Israeli airspace exposed the weakness of Israel’s air defenses.
Since the drone’s downing, Israel has deployed a missile-defense system near the Lebanese border. An army spokesman confirmed that the Patriot missile-defense system was deployed near the northern Israeli city of Haifa. The system, which was developed with American backing, can intercept medium-range ballistic missiles, planes and drones from a distance of 35 to 100 miles.
“There is a sense of potential with Hezbollah . . . as well as with Iran, for things to heat up quickly. There is a sense of tit-for-tat,” said the Israeli military official.
Iran has accused Israel of assassinating scientists involved in its nuclear facilities and of sabotaging Iran’s online systems with complex virus and cyber-hacking. A computer worm known as Stuxnet that was designed by the United States and Israel to disable controls on sensitive equipment is credited with setting back the Iranian nuclear program several years.
Iran, in turn, has been accused of launching attacks on Israeli computer systems and other “Western targets.”
On Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta revealed in a speech on cyber security that computer attacks over the summer had devastated the computer systems of oil companies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Speaking to a group called Business Executives for National Security in New York City, Panetta described the Shamoon virus that infected the computer systems as “very sophisticated.” He said it first struck the Saudi Arabian state oil company Aramco two months ago, causing the computers to display an image of a burning American flag. Then the virus overwrote all of the files in a computer with what Panetta called “additional garbage data” that rendered the computers useless. Panetta said 30,000 computers had been destroyed.
A few days later, Panetta said, the virus appeared on computers of a Qatari energy company, RasGas.
Panetta did not blame the attacks on Iran, but both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are bitter foes of Iran. The two countries also have been providing weapons to insurgents fighting to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, an Iranian ally.
Sheera Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.