JERUSALEM >> Syria fired missiles at Israeli warplanes on a mission to destroy a weapons convoy destined for the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah prompting it to deploy its missile defense system, Israeli officials said today, in a rare military exchange between the two hostile neighbors.
The Israeli military said its aircraft struck several targets in Syria and were back in Israeli-controlled airspace when several anti-aircraft missiles were launched from Syria toward the Israeli jets.
Israeli aerial defense systems intercepted one of the missiles, the army said, without elaborating. It would not say whether any other missiles struck Israeli-held territory, but said the safety of Israeli civilians and Israeli aircraft was “not compromised.”
Israel is widely believed to have carried out several airstrikes in recent years on advanced weapons systems in Syria — including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made missiles — as well as Hezbollah positions. It rarely comments on such operations and the military statement detailing the raid and comments confirming the operation by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were highly unusual.
“Our policy is very consistent. When we identify attempts to transfer advanced weapons to the Hezbollah, and we have the intelligence and the operational capability, we act to prevent that. That is what was and that is what will be,” Netanyahu said.
Hezbollah is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad in the brutal Syrian civil war. The Iran-backed group is sworn to Israel’s destruction and fought a month-long war with the Jewish state in 2006.
The firing of missiles from Syria toward Israeli aircraft is rare, though Israeli military officials reported a shoulder-fired missile attack a few months ago.
Israeli Channel 10 TV reported that Israel deployed its Arrow defense system for the first time against a real threat and hit an incoming missile, intercepting it before it exploded in Israel.
However, Arrow is designed to intercept long-range ballistic missiles high in the stratosphere, so it remained unclear why the system would have been used in this particular incident.
The Israeli military would not comment on the type of system used.
Israel’s powerful transportation and intelligence minister Yisrael Katz told the station “our message is clear, we will not be complacent with a Syrian policy that arms Hezbollah.” Katz said “the fact that the incident developed into a situation where Israel claimed responsibility and the Syrians responded is significant.”
A Syrian military statement said four Israeli warplanes violated Syrian airspace — flying into Syria through Lebanese territory — and targeted a military position in central Syria.
Damascus said Syrian anti-aircraft systems confronted the planes and claimed one of the jets was shot down in Israeli- controlled territory and that another was hit. The Israeli military denied the claim, saying none of the jets had been hit.
There was no immediate comment from Hezbollah.
The pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV, which has good sources within the militant group, dismissed reports by other Arab media outlets that a Hezbollah commander, Badee Hamiyeh, was killed in one of the airstrikes. It said Hamiyeh was killed Thursday in the southern Syrian region of Quneitra, near the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
Jordan, which borders both Israel and Syria, said parts of the missiles fell in its rural northern areas, including the Irbid district. The Jordanian military said the debris came from the Israeli interception of missiles fired from Syria.
Radwan Otoum, the Irbid governor, told the state news agency Petra that the missile parts caused only minor damage.
A chunk of missile crashed into the courtyard of a home in the community of Inbeh in northern Jordan, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Syrian border.
Umm Bilal al-Khatib, a local resident, said she heard a blast at around 3 a.m. and initially thought a gas cylinder had exploded. When she went outside she found a small crater and a 3-meter-long (10-foot) cylinder.
Israeli media said the interception by the Arrow system took place north of Jerusalem.
Arrow is part of what Israel calls its “multilayer missile defense,” comprised of different systems meant to protect against short and long range threats, including the thousands of missiles possessed by Hezbollah in Lebanon and rockets used by Hamas and other Islamic militant groups in Gaza.
Israel has been largely unaffected by the Syrian civil war raging next door, suffering mostly sporadic incidents of spillover fire that Israel has generally dismissed as tactical errors by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. Israel has responded to the errant fire with limited reprisals on Syrian positions.
The Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad, eventually descended into a full-blown civil war, with Syrian government forces fighting an array of rebel groups. The chaos has allowed al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria and the Islamic State group to expand their reach.
The skies over Syria are now crowded, with Russian and Syrian aircraft backing Assad’s forces and a U.S.-led coalition striking Islamic State and al-Qaida targets.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.