An Israeli soldier launches a Skylark I unmanned drone aircraft at an army deployment area near the border with Gaza. (AFP)
Jerusalem, July 14: Israel intercepted a drone sent from Gaza today as it flew just off the shore of the port city of Ashdod, about 14 miles north of the Palestinian enclave, adding a new element to a week-old conflict.
The military wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for sending a “number of drones” into Israel, describing the event on its website as one of the “surprises” it had promised over the last week and saying the drones had been dispatched on “special missions”.
An Israeli military spokesman did not rule out that the possibility that the Palestinians had access to additional drones.
Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner-general of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, which assists Palestinian refugees, said in a news briefing that he was “deeply alarmed and affected by the escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip and the devastating human and physical toll it is taking on civilians, including Palestine refugees”.
He put the latest casualty numbers there at 174 killed and over 1,100 wounded, adding indications are that “women and children make up a sizeable number of victims of the current strikes”.
According to a statement issued by his office, Krähenbühl urgently called on the Israeli army to “put an end to attacks against, or endangering, civilians and civilian infrastructure which are contrary to international humanitarian law”.
He also called for an end to rocket fire from Gaza aimed at Israel, which the UN has described as indiscriminate.
It was not immediately clear whether the drone was carrying explosives or surveillance equipment.
The Israeli military said it had shot down the drone with a Patriot surface-to-air missile.
“It was shot to smithereens,” Lt Col Peter Lerner, an army spokesman, said, adding that the navy was searching for remnants of the drone along the coast.
Col. Lerner said that military scanners had picked up the drone as it took off from Gaza and that it was shot down in a location that posed the least risk to civilians.
Israel’s defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, said in a statement today that the downing of the Hamas drone was “an example of the attempts to continue to harm us by any means, and of the preparedness of the Israel Defence Forces,” and that “Hamas is trying to chalk up an achievement at any price”.
Israel destroyed a drone-manufacturing facility in Gaza during a previous round of cross-border fighting, in November 2012, and has intercepted at least two drones in Israeli airspace that were dispatched by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia organisation to the north, in the last couple of years.
The drone today, however, was thought to be the first to have entered Israel from Gaza.
Despite growing international calls for a ceasefire, Israel continued its air offensive in Gaza and rockets continued to fly into Israel today.