JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military said Saturday it shot down three drones launched by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah as it flew to an area where an Israeli gas platform was recently installed in the Mediterranean Sea.
The launch of the plane appeared to be an attempt by Hezbollah to influence U.S.-brokered negotiations between Israel and Lebanon over their maritime border, an area rich in natural gas.
Israel said in a statement that the plane was detected early and did not pose an “imminent threat”. Still, the incident drew a stern warning from Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Yar Rapid.
“I stand before you right now and say to all who seek our demise, from Gaza to Tehran, from the coast of Lebanon to Syria: do not test us,” Lapid said in his first address to the nation since taking office on Friday. Israel knows how to use its power against every threat, against every enemy.”
Earlier this month, Israel built a gas rig at the Karish field, which Israel says is located within part of its internationally recognized economic waters. Lebanon claims it is in disputed waters.
Hezbollah issued a brief statement confirming that it had launched three unarmed drones on a reconnaissance mission over the disputed maritime issue at the Karish oil field. “Mission accomplished and information received,” it said.
Israel and Hezbollah, sworn enemies, fought a month-long war in the summer of 2006. Israel considers the Iran-backed Lebanese group the most serious direct threat, and estimates it has around 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.
The United States said last week that mediator Amos Hochstein had held talks with both Lebanese and Israeli sides. “The exchanges were productive and advanced the goal of narrowing the differences between the two sides. The United States will continue to engage with all parties in the days and weeks ahead,” his office said in a statement last week.
The two countries, which have been at official war since the founding of Israel in 1948, both claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon wants to develop offshore gas reserves as it grapples with the worst economic crisis in modern history.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati told reporters on Saturday that Lebanon had received “encouraging information” about the border dispute, but declined to comment further, saying Beirut was awaiting “a formal written response to the recommendations of the Lebanese side.” .
Associated Press writers Gaza City, Fares Akram in the Gaza Strip and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.