Published April 11, 2005
BEIRUT, Lebanon – The militant Hezbollah (search) group flew an unmanned spy aircraft over northern Israel on Monday, saying it was in response to Israeli overflights in Lebanon. Israeli officials accused the group of seeking to hike tensions and undermine Israeli-Palestinian peace moves.
It was the second time in recent months that the Shiite Muslim guerrilla group has sent a drone over Israel. The Israeli military confirmed that the spy plane crossed into the western part of Israel's Galilee (search) region.
Two Israeli military aircraft flew over southern Lebanon (search) shortly after the drone's flight, Lebanese officials said.
Hezbollah said its "Mirsad I" drone flew over Israeli communities, down to the area of Acre, about 18 miles south of the Israeli-Lebanese border, "in response to the enemy's continuous and repeated violations of Lebanese airspace."
It said the aircraft returned safely to base after the 5:15 p.m. flight.
"It is our right as a resistance movement and Lebanese people to carry out such aerial reconnaissance missions over settlements," Hezbollah's member of parliament Abdullah Kassir told Associated Press Television News. "This is a natural right to confront daily Israeli violations."
By sending a drone at this particular time, Hezbollah could be seeking to boost its standing at home in Lebanon as its Syrian allies leave the country and it tries to chart a bigger political role for itself. Flying an unmanned spy craft — a capability the Lebanese army does not have — strengthens Hezbollah's image at home as a defender of Lebanon amid calls by some for the group to disarm.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev called the drone flight "unacceptable."
"We're concerned that Hezbollah is trying to deliberately torpedo any chance there is for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians," he told AP in Jerusalem. Israel has said it believes the drones are made by Iran, a major supporter of Hezbollah.
The drone flight came after an Israeli reconnaissance plane earlier Monday flew over southern Lebanon and the eastern Bekaa Valley — where Syrian forces are carrying out a withdrawal from Lebanon, the Lebanese Army command said.
A Hezbollah surveillance capability of Israeli territories would likely stoke tensions along a long problematic border. Israel regularly clashed with Hezbollah forces during the Jewish state's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended with its withdrawal four years ago.
The first time the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah sent a drone over the north was on Nov. 7, also in response to Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace.
Since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, clashes have been confined to the disputed Chebaa Farms area on the foothills of Mt. Hermon in the east where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet.
Israeli planes have frequently violated Lebanese airspace on reconnaissance missions, drawing anti-aircraft fire from the Lebanese army and Hezbollah guerrillas. Lebanon has repeatedly complained to the United Nations about the flights.
Also Monday, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's personal representative for southern Lebanon Geir Pedersen arrived in Beirut to succeed Staffan de Mistura, who has been named as Annan's deputy special representative for Iraq.