Categories: NewsWorld

Iran launches unprecedented strikes on Israel, opening wider conflict

JERUSALEM – Iran launched an unprecedented drone and missile attack on Israel Saturday, the Israeli army announced, in a major escalation of the long-running covert war between the regional foes.

Blasts were heard in the skies above Jerusalem early Sunday, AFP journalists said.

Iran had repeatedly threatened to strike Israel in retaliation for a deadly April 1 air strike on its Damascus consular annexe and Washington had warned repeatedly in recent days that the reprisals were imminent.

“Iran launched UAVs from its territory towards the territory of the state of Israel,” military spokesman Daniel Hagari said in a televised statement.

“We are working in close cooperation with the United States and our partners in the region in order to act against the launches and intercept them,” Rear Admiral Hagari said.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards confirmed a retaliatory drone and missile attack was under way against Israel in retaliation for the Damascus strike which killed seven Guards, two of them generals.

The Guards said its ballistic missiles were fired almost an hour after the slower moving drones.

An Israeli army official said Iran had launched more than 100 attack drones at Israel and said he expected more to follow.

“We expect the drones to be here in the following hours and we might see some more waves of drones as time progresses,” the official said.

Iran’s allies in the region joined the attack with Yemen’s Huthi rebels also launching drones at Israel, according to security agency Ambrey, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement announcing rocket fire at Israeli positions in the annexed Golan Heights.

‘Unfolding’ attack

The White House said it expected the attack – which comes against the backdrop of the six-month Israel-Hamas war in Gaza – to “unfold over a number of hours”.

It said Washington would “stand with the people of Israel”.

The Iranian mission to the United Nations warned Washington to keep out of Iran’s conflict with Israel.

“It is a conflict between Iran and the rogue Israeli regime, from which the U.S. MUST STAY AWAY!” it said.

President Joe Biden cut short a weekend trip to his home state of Delaware for urgent consultations, the White House said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz postponed a planned visit to Hungary and Austria while the prime minister convened his war cabinet in Tel Aviv.

An adviser to Iran’s supreme leader said that Israel was in “complete panic” over Tehran’s looming response.

“They don’t know what Iran wants to do, so they and their supporters are terrified,” senior adviser Yahya Rahim said.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak condemned Iran’s “reckless” action and pledged that his government would “continue to stand up for Israel’s security”.

France echoed its commitment to Israel’s security. “In deciding to take this unprecedented action, Iran has reached a new level of destabilisation,” Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne said.

Airspace closing

Shortly before the launches, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was prepared for a “direct attack from Iran”.

“Our defence systems are deployed, we are prepared for any scenario, both in defence and attack,” the Israeli premier said in a televised statement, adding Israel had the backing of the United States and “many” other countries.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had already seized an Israeli-linked container vessel in the Gulf earlier on Saturday, putting the whole region on alert.

Israel said it was closing schools nationwide while Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon announced they were temporarily closing their airspace.

Israel said it was closing its own airspace from 2130 GMT.

The Israeli military warned Iran it would suffer the “consequences for choosing to escalate the situation any further”.

The April 1 strike in Damascus, which killed 16 people, including two Iranian generals, had been widely blamed on Israel. Iran had repeatedly vowed to hit back, but had not specified how.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized a container ship “related” to Israel in the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday, which was now heading towards Iranian waters, Iranian state media reported.

The ship’s operator, the Italian-Swiss group MSC, said it was working with the relevant authorities to ensure the wellbeing of the 25 crew onboard.

Both Israel and the United States denounced the seizure as piracy, with Israel also demanding that the Guards be declared a “terrorist organisation” by the European Union.

In Washington, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson called on Iran “to release the vessel and its international crew immediately”.

“Seizing a civilian vessel without provocation is a blatant violation of international law, and an act of piracy”, she said. 

Gaza truce stalemate

The Gaza war began with the unprecedented October 7 attack by Palestinian militants Hamas against Israel which resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,686 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry. 

Israel’s military said Saturday it had struck more than 30 Hamas targets across Gaza.

In the main central city of Deir al-Balah, fire burned in the rubble of a destroyed mosque.

Israel’s military “demanded that the whole area be evacuated” before it was “wiped out in minutes”, said Abdullah Baraka, a witness.

In nearby Nuseirat refugee camp, Abd Thabet said residents had been warned to evacuate on Friday evening ahead of a large explosion that caused “massive destruction”. 

“All of the houses were demolished, including my home,” the 35-year-old told AFP. 

Hamas said it had submitted its response to a Gaza truce plan presented by US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators at talks in Cairo this week. 

The Palestinian militant group said it was sticking to its previous demands, insisting on “a permanent ceasefire” and the “withdrawal of the occupation army from the entire Gaza Strip”.

During the October attack, Palestinian militants seized about 250 hostages, 129 of whom Israel says remain in Gaza, including 34 the army says are dead.

The Israeli prime minister’s office accused Hamas of torpedoing efforts for an exchange of hostages for prisoners.

“Hamas to this day has refused any deal and any compromise proposal,” it said. –AFP

Dayang Norazhar

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