Israel’s military said Saturday it carried out airstrikes on Syrian targets after it intercepted an Iranian drone launched from Syria that had infiltrated its airspace, with one of its jets crashing amid antiaircraft fire, intensifying tensions between the two neighbors.
The Israeli military said the F-16 aircraft wasn’t shot down and that the pilots ejected in Israeli territory, with one evacuated to hospital in serious condition.
Syrian state media called the strikes a “new Israeli aggression.” The shots set off warning sirens in northern Israel of an imminent rocket attack, the Israeli military said.
While Israel and Syria have exchanged volleys frequently in recent months and the Israeli military has intercepted enemy drones, the incident Saturday was unusual in that Israel said it involved an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle—the first such claim.
The incident was also the first time Israel has lost a jet during a strike in Syria, despite dozens of airstrikes in recent years.
Israel has amplified criticism of Iranian attempts to set up military bases and weapons factories in Syria in recent months, warning it would engage in a conflict with the Syrian regime should Iran and Tehran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah entrench on its border.
The Israeli military “sees the Iranian attack and the Syrian response as a severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty,” it said in a statement.
Iran has denied it is seeking to establish bases in Syria, but has said it would continue to defend Syrian territory from foreign forces.
An official at Iran’s United Nations mission didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Russia and Iran are the main backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the yearslong civil conflict in Syria and Tehran vows to destroy the Israeli state.
Israel fears that after the fall of Islamic State and as the Syrian regime consolidates power in large parts of Syria, Iran will set up military bases there that could threaten Israeli security.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow late last month for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Iranian attempts to further set up militarily in Syria and create precision missile factories on the ground there.
“I made it clear that we will not agree to either of these developments,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement after the meeting. “And will act accordingly.”
Israel has largely stayed out of the Syrian war, though it has launched some 100 airstrikes on what it has said were convoys ferrying Iranian weapons to Hezbollah through Syrian territory.
The military also has increasingly hit what it claims are Iranian-controlled military bases in Syria in recent months, increasing tensions between the two sides.
Earlier this week, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Israeli missiles had hit military targets near Damascus, the Syrian capital. The Syrian army said it had intercepted the strikes.
Israel also launched missiles in December against a military base controlled by Iran near Damascus, according to pro-regime media.
Warplanes in September also struck a Syrian facility north of the central city of Homs. Israel didn’t confirm that it had conducted the attack, but Israeli officials subsequently said the facility was producing arms for Iran and Hezbollah.
—Raja Abdulrahim in Beirut contributed to this article.
Write to Rory Jones at [email protected]