JERUSALEM – A senior Israeli Air Force commander said Thursday that the IAF will not take action against Russian warplanes if they encroach on Israeli air space.
"This is a great power and our policy is not to attack any Russian," he told reporters. "Russia is not an enemy."
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The officer was responding to a question about Israel’s reaction if Soviet planes attacking Islamic State or other forces in Syria overflew the Golan Heights which borders Syria.
Speaking two days after Turkish planes downed a Russian aircraft for allegedly penetrating Turkish air space, the officer said that a system was in place to enable immediate communication between the IAF and the Russian military. "It’s a question of picking up the phone and talking," he said. "We try to avoid friction and so do they."
With the IAF periodically entering Syrian air space on reconnaissance or to attack Iranian arms convoys bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon, both Israel and Russia are aware of the need to avoid accidental encounters. The IAF commander said there was a mutual understanding about where and when each side could operate but there was no area off limits to Israel "We don’t need anyone’s permission. They are busy with their matters and we with ours."
Both parties have radar systems which should enable them to monitor the movements of each other’s aircraft.
Israel's attempt to intercept an intruding plane 42 years ago, left a bitter aftertaste. A few months before the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt, a Libyan airliner bound for Cairo inadvertently crossed into the Sinai Peninsula, then held by Israel.
A sandstorm blotted out the landscape and forced the crew to rely on instrument navigation but the pilot erred. A state of war existed between Egypt and Israel and two Israeli fighters were sent aloft to check out the intruder. They reported a 727 with Libyan markings and tried to make radio contact but there was no response. The pilots were ordered to signal the plane to land at an Israeli air base. One of the Israeli pilots flew slightly above and to the front of the Libyan cockpit and signaled to the 727 pilot to follow him but the latter turned in the opposite direction. The Israeli planes waggled their wings and fired warning shots, without effect.
(In the downing of the Russian warplane this week, the navigator, who survived, said that the Turkish planes had failed to show themselves or otherwise make contact before firing from the rear.)
Believing the Libyan intruder to be on an intelligence mission or perhaps bound for a suicide attack on Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona, the Israeli command ordered the fighters to force the plane down. The fighters fired bursts at the wings. The pilot of the Libyan plane attempted to make a crash landing but he came down in an area of dunes and the plane broke up. Of the 113 persons aboard, only five survived. One of them was the co-pilot who said the crew recognized the fighters as Israeli but that in view of Libya's enmity towards Israel decided to try to escape.