July 14, 2014 10:54:29 AM
JERUSALEM -- The Israeli military said it downed a drone on Monday along the country's southern coastline, the first time it encountered an unmanned aircraft since the campaign against Gaza Strip militants began last week.
The drone was launched from Gaza and was shot down near the southern city of Ashdod, the military said. Hamas claimed it launched several drones Monday at Israel, without immediately providing details on their missions.
Since the latest bout of fighting began last Tuesday, militants have fired nearly 1,000 rockets at Israel, causing some injuries and damage to property, but no fatalities among Israelis. By contrast, 172 Palestinians have died as a result of Israel's air attacks.
But the use of drones with an offensive capacity could potentially inflict significant casualties -- something the rockets from Gaza have failed to do, largely because of the success of the military's 'Iron Dome' air defense system in shooting them down.
"Hamas is trying everything it can to produce some kind of achievement and it is crucial that we maintain our high state of readiness," Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said. "The shooting down of a drone this morning by our air defense system is an example of their efforts to strike at us in any way possible."
Israel began airstrikes Tuesday against militants in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in what it says was a response to heavy rocket fire out of the densely populated territory. The military says it has launched more than 1,300 airstrikes since then, while Palestinian militants have launched nearly 1,000 rockets at Israel.
The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza says 172 people have been killed, including dozens of civilians. There have been no Israeli fatalities, though several people have been wounded, including a teenage boy who was seriously injured by rocket shrapnel on Sunday.
The military said Monday's drone was launched from Gaza and was shot down in mid-flight by a Patriot surface-to-air missile in mid-flight near Ashdod.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the current Israeli operation could last for "a long time" and that the military was prepared "for all possibilities." That includes a wide-ranging Gaza ground operation, which would likely cause heavy casualties in the coastal strip.
But Netanyahu is coming under increasing international pressure to end the operation soon. On Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate cease-fire while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced American "readiness" to help restore calm. Egypt, a key mediator between Israel and Hamas, continued to work behind the scenes to stop the conflict.
Hamas has sent signals it may be ready to consider a cease-fire but appears to be waiting for some tangible military or diplomatic achievement before moving ahead on that front. For his part, Netanyahu wants to show the Israeli public that he has succeeded in significantly degrading Hamas's ability to strike at its Israeli targets before moving ahead diplomatically.
Meanwhile, a 21-year-old Palestinian man was killed Monday during confrontations with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank village of Samoa, near Hebron, Palestinian health officials said. Residents of the village said soldiers opened fire at a group of Palestinians who were throwing stones at them. The officials and the villagers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.
The Israeli army confirmed the death and said it was looking into the incident.