An Israeli military ship, background, and an air force helicopter operate… (Ariel Schalit / Associated…)
JERUSALEM — Israel said Thursday that it shot down an unmanned aircraft that had entered Israeli airspace off the northern coast near Haifa, the second such incident in nearly seven months.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said the drone was first detected as it was flying along the coast of Lebanon toward Israel. When it became clear that the aircraft was not going to stop or change course, Israel dispatched helicopters and F-16 warplanes to destroy it about five miles off the coast, as it flew at an altitude of about 6,000 feet.
A naval search for the downed aircraft was underway.
Military officials said they suspect the drone was sent by Hezbollah. The Lebanese militant group issued a brief statement on its television station, Al Manar, denying any role in the flight.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose helicopter happened to be flying in northern Israel at the time of the incident and was temporarily grounded as a precaution, said he viewed the attempted border breach with "utmost gravity."
Israel and Lebanon use drones to spy on each other.
Israel shot down a drone over the Negev desert in October. At the time, Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged sending the unarmed aircraft, which he said had exposed weaknesses in Israel's air defense system because it was not shot until reaching land.
Hezbollah, with assistance from Iran, has been developing drones for years to spy on Israel or use in potential attacks. The militant group first deployed the drones during its 2006 war with Israel, which shot down two of them.
Hezbollah says it is responding to Israeli jets and drones that routinely fly over Lebanon to conduct mock attacks and surveillance.
Israeli officials vowed to retaliate for Thursday's incident. It comes at an increasingly tense time in the region, where a 2-year-old uprising in Syria has sparked international concerns about the possible use of chemical weapons by government troops.