Hezbollah 'blinds' Israeli defences with drone strike on Sky Dew airship

Israeli military confirms damage to radar blimp as PM Benjamin Netanyahu accused of ignoring threat from Lebanese side of border

Israel's Sky Dew advanced radar detection airship has been struck by a Hezbollah drone. Getty
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Israel has suffered a substantial setback to its surveillance capabilities after a Hezbollah drone struck a $230 million advanced radar detection airship in its deepest attack into the country to date.

Israel's military has confirmed that the Sky Dew blimp, which can spot targets up to 250km away, had been damaged in an attack by a kamikaze drone. Local reports suggest the blimp was shot down.

Intelligence analysts told The National that Hezbollah is seeking to make northern Israel’s detection systems “go blind” potentially ahead of a more serious assault.

With Hezbollah strikes increasing in northern Israel, a local mayor has accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “ignoring reality” over the growing threat.

Sky Dew detection

Israel has been developing the Sky Dew project since 2022, giving its forces an advanced observation system for drones and cruise missiles striking from Iran and Syria, as well as Lebanon, by picking up smaller targets that are harder to detect in northern Israel's valleys.

It then gives precision targeting information to air defence weapons, including the Iron Dome system.

The balloon also has the key advantage of remaining airborne at low cost, without requiring fuel or crew replacement, whereas surveillance aircraft cost $40,000 an hour to operate.

But that capability has either been severely damaged or destroyed after Hezbollah launched a one-way attack drone that flew 33km undetected into Israeli airspace and struck the balloon close to the town of Tiberias.

The aircraft was probably an Iran-designed Ababil carrying a 40kg warhead travelling up to 370kph with a range of 120km.

Blinding defences

“What it is clear is that Hezbollah are trying to make the northern Israel detection defences go blind,” said Sarit Zehavi, a former lieutenant colonel in Israeli military intelligence.

Speaking from northern Israel, she had spent most of pre-dawn Friday awake after another drone strike, although air-raid sirens indicated this one had been detected.

Ms Zehavi, who is also a mother and runs Alma, an open-source intelligence centre, said she was discussing with neighbours “whether to stay at home during this Saturday or to go away” with the drone attacks increasingly frequent over the last two months.

Tal Hagin, a leading open-source intelligence analyst based in Tel Aviv, said there was “clearly something lacking in Israel's defence system at the moment” because a drone had been able to enter “from within Lebanese territory all the way into Israel, over 30km away”.

“Acting as a proxy for Iran, Hezbollah is essentially trying to take out the eyes of Israel’s northern defence capabilities,” he said.

He added that the precision of recent attacks suggested that just like the Israelis, Hezbollah had a “target bank” of sites it can hit in retaliatory strikes.

The Sky Dew attack came shortly after Israel confirmed it had killed a senior Hezbollah field commander on Wednesday.

No impact

Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, Israel’s military spokesman, confirmed that a Hezbollah drone had scored a direct hit on Sky Dew but added there were no casualties and that it “had no impact to the IDF's aerial situational awareness capability in the area”.

Hezbollah confirmed in a statement that “a number of attack drones” had struck an Israeli airbase near Tiberias. “It accurately hit its designated targets and achieved what it wanted from this limited operation,” a spokesman said.

Hezbollah show of power

Hezbollah also used its air-to-surface missiles for the first time on Thursday, attacking a military target near the northern Israeli town of Metulla.

It was the first recorded instance of the use of the Russian S-5 missiles and, combined with the attack on the Sky Dew blimp, a reminder that the Iran-allied paramilitary has kept its full capability up its sleeve.

In an April 2024 speech Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel that his group had not yet begun using the bulk of its troops and arsenal.

“We haven’t even mandated our forces to remain stationed at the front,” he said. “They work on a rotation: for a period of time, then go rest at home, then a replacement comes and so on. And despite this, we have accomplished many losses in northern Israel.”

Fighting between Israel and Hezbollah has intensified substantially in the past week. Friday saw the killing of three people in southern Lebanon – a Hezbollah fighter and two civilians, one of whom was a 13-year-old child – in a wave of Israeli strikes near the southern city of Sidon, around 30km from the border.

The two civilians were killed in a strike on a stone factory while the third person, who Hezbollah acknowledged was a member in a statement announcing his death, was targeted in his vehicle.

A statement by the Israeli military said the air force had “struck terrorist infrastructure” where Hezbollah was operating.

In Israel on Thursday, there were 133 threat sirens, warning of missile and drone attacks and adding to the sense of danger for residents.

Since October 7, fighting between Israel and Hezbollah has driven tens of thousands of people from their homes on both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border. There are no signs residents will be able to return any time soon, more than seven months into the conflict.

Many Israeli residents have signalled their unwillingness to return to the north while Hezbollah remains on the border. Their departure could now become permanent said Moshe Davidovitch, head of the regional council, in a letter to Mr Netanyahu.

“Given the manner in which this national issue is being handled, the northern conflict zone will be abandoned – not only the towns that have been evacuated but the entire conflict area in which our people believe things are business as usual while inexplicably ignoring reality,” he wrote on Sunday.

Updated: May 17, 2024, 3:16 PM