regular-article-logo Friday, 24 May 2024

Israel’s strike on Iran highlights its ability to evade Tehran’s air defenses

The strike was the latest salvo in a series of tit-for-tat attacks between the two countries this month that have heightened fears of a broader regional conflict

Farnaz Fassihi, Ronen Bergman, Eric Schmitt, Luis Ferré-Sadurní Published 21.04.24, 09:27 AM
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Representational image File picture

An Israeli airstrike on Iran on Friday damaged an air defense system, according to Western and Iranian officials, in an attack calculated to deliver a message that Israel could bypass Iran’s defensive systems undetected and paralyze them.

The strike damaged a defensive battery near Natanz, a city in central Iran that is crucial to the country’s nuclear weapons program, according to two Western officials and two Iranian officials. The attack — and the revelation Saturday of its target — was in retaliation for Iran’s strike in Israel last week after Israel bombed its embassy compound in Damascus, Syria. But it used a fraction of the firepower Tehran deployed in launching hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel.


The strike Friday was the latest salvo in a series of tit-for-tat attacks between the two countries this month that have heightened fears of a broader regional conflict. But the relatively limited scope of Israel’s strike and the muted response from Iranian officials seem to have eased tensions.

Iran and Israel have conducted a yearslong shadow war, but the conflict intensified April 1, when Israeli warplanes killed seven Iranian officials, including three senior commanders, at the Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria, which Israel asserts was used as a military site. Iran responded last week by firing a barrage of drones and cruise and ballistic missiles at Israel, almost all of which were shot down by Israel and its allies. But the strikes nevertheless rattled Israelis.

That attack was Iran’s first direct assault on Israeli soil, thrusting the countries’ clandestine warfare — long fought by land, air, sea and cyberspace — into open view. The Israeli government vowed to respond, even as world leaders and Western allies, including the United States, rushed to deescalate the situation, urging Israel not to respond in a way that could lead to a regional war.

Although Israel’s leaders came close to ordering a more extensive attack on Iran, the Friday attack appeared calibrated to send a warning about Israel’s military capabilities — but without further raising tensions as Israel continues to fight Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The two Iranian officials who discussed the Israeli attack said Israel had struck an S-300 anti-aircraft system at a military base in the province of Isfahan. The officials’ account was supported by satellite imagery analyzed by The New York Times, which showed damage to the radar of an S-300 system at the Eighth Shekari Air Base in Isfahan.

It was unclear precisely what sort of weapon struck the S-300 system. Three Western and two Iranian officials confirmed Friday that Israel had deployed aerial drones and at least one missile fired from a warplane. Previously, Iranian officials had said the attack on the military base had been conducted by small drones, most likely launched from inside Iranian territory.

Two Western officials said that a missile was fired from a warplane far from Israeli or Iranian airspace, and that the weapon included technology that enabled it to evade Iran’s radar defenses. The two Iranian officials said the military had not detected anything entering the country’s airspace Friday, including drones, missiles or aircraft.

The efforts to ratchet down tensions between Israel and Iran played out as Israel’s war against Hamas, now in its sixth month, continued Saturday with reports of a deadly assault in southern Gaza.

Israeli airstrikes in Rafah on Saturday killed at least 10 civilians, including women and children, according to Palestinian state media, sending fear through an area where more than 1 million Palestinians have been displaced.

Palestinians have been bracing for weeks for an Israeli ground offensive on Rafah, the southernmost part of Gaza, where a majority of the strip’s 2.2 million residents have fled after being forced from their homes. Israel’s bombardments and ground invasion have killed more than 30,000 people, according to local officials.

The Israeli airstrikes Saturday hit two homes, and missiles and artillery struck other areas of Rafah and the surrounding area, according to the Wafa News Agency. The Israeli military did not immediately comment on the strike.

“It was like an earthquake,” Mohammad al-Masri, 31, said of the shaking from the strikes.

The first strike hit just past midnight, and the second one soon after, said al-Masri, an accountant who was sheltering with his family in a tent in a large encampment in Rafah.

“When we hear these strikes, we don’t know what to do,” he said. “Everyone is saying the same thing: ‘Where can we go?’”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel’s military plans to invade Rafah to “complete the elimination of Hamas’ battalions” and destroy its tunnel networks. World leaders, including President Joe Biden, have urged Israel not to invade the city because of the risks of heavy civilian casualties.

About 500 miles away, Ismail Haniyeh, the political leader of Hamas, traveled to Turkey on Saturday to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has strongly condemned Israel and its leaders since the war began in October.

Turkey was once Israel’s closest friend in the Muslim world, but the relationship has grown increasingly turbulent since Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Erdogan has backed the Palestinian cause, which has widespread public support in Turkey, defended Hamas since the Oct. 7 attack and strongly condemned Israel and its leaders.

On Saturday, Erdogan’s office said the two leaders had discussed Israeli attacks against “Palestinian land, primarily against Gaza; what is needed to be done for the humanitarian aid to reach Gaza adequately and without interruption.”

After the meeting, Erdogan told reporters that he would use every opportunity to draw attention to the suffering in Gaza and that he hoped Israel would eventually be held accountable.

“Israel will certainly pay the price of the atrocities it has been inflicting on Palestinians one day,” Erdogan told reporters.

The New York Times News Service

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