Iran launches hundreds of drones and cruise missiles at Israel in unprecedented attack

<span>Benjamin Netanyahu (centre) during an Israeli war cabinet meeting at the Kirya in Tel Aviv on Saturday to discuss Iran’s drone and missile attack.</span><span>Photograph: Israeli Prime Minister's Office/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Benjamin Netanyahu (centre) during an Israeli war cabinet meeting at the Kirya in Tel Aviv on Saturday to discuss Iran’s drone and missile attack.Photograph: Israeli Prime Minister's Office/AFP/Getty Images

Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday night, in the Islamic Republic’s first ever direct attack on the Jewish state, bringing a years-long shadow war into the open and threatening to draw the region into a broader conflagration.

Israel, with the help of key western allies including the US, UK and Jordan, claimed to have intercepted some 99% of the launches during the mass strike, but added that some ballistic missiles had reached Israel, damaging the key Nevatim air base in southern Israel which remained operational.

As the UN security council prepared to convene an emergency session, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said more than 350 missiles were launched during the attack from Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, and called the interception rate a “significant strategic success”.

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Commenting on Israel’s response to the attack, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, posted on X: “We intercepted, we repelled, together we shall win.”

“The Iranian attack was foiled,” Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said in a televised statement adding that no drones or cruise missiles that had entered Israeli territory, and “only a few” ballistic missiles reached Israel.

Although Israel moved to reopen its air space, officials said the incident was not yet over.

As of Sunday morning, Israeli officials indicated no decision had been made about an Israeli response to the Iranian attack, as an official said any potential response would be discussed at the war cabinet meeting.

Israeli war planes, however, were reported to be bombing Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon.

On the Gaza front of the fast expanding regional war, Netanyahu said Hamas had rejected a ceasefire proposal and that Israel would continue pursue its conflict there with “full force”.

While many of the missiles and drones were brought down outside Israel’s airspace others were intercepted over Israeli territory by the Iron Dome air defence interceptor system, which lit up the night sky with multiple detonations, while air raid sirens sounded in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities.

The roar of Israeli air force jets could be heard across the country in the early hours of Sunday.

Some projectiles penetrated the defensive shield. IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari confirmed a direct hit on an airbase in southern Israel that caused “minor damage to infrastructure” though the base remains fully operational.

One young girl is in emergency care after the attack, he said.

When asked about possible retaliation by Israel, Hagari said: “We have plans, the situation is still ongoing, we are assessing the situation, we are showing the cabinet the plans, and we are ready to do what is necessary for the defence of Israel.”

The New York Times cited Israeli intelligence sources as saying the main targets appeared to be Israeli military installations in the occupied Golan Heights, in the far north, and the Negev desert, in the far south. Tehran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, fired volleys of rockets at the Golan at the same time as the Iranian bombardment, and the Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen, claimed they had also joined the attack.

Earlier on Saturday, Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency reported that the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had boarded a ship in the Strait of Hormuz by helicopter assault and taken it into Iranian waters. The cargo ship, the MSC Aries, is Portugese-flagged but linked to an Israeli company.

Through its mission at the UN, Iran declared the mass aerial attack, which Tehran dubbed “Operation True Promise” was a retaliation for the bombing of an Iranian diplomatic building in Damascus on 1 April, and that it now considered the matter closed, unless there was further action by Israel.

“The matter can be deemed concluded, the statement said. However, should the Israeli regime make another mistake, Iran’s response will be considerably more severe,” the statement on the X social media platform said. “It is a conflict between Iran and the rogue Israeli regime, from which the US must stay away!”

Netanyahu spoke by phone for 25 minutes with US president Joe Biden at 4am Israeli time, as the aerial attack appeared to peter out.

After the call, Biden said he had reaffirmed to Netanyahu “America’s ironclad commitment to the security of Israel”.

“I told him that Israel demonstrated a remarkable capacity to defend against and defeat even unprecedented attacks – sending a clear message to its foes that they cannot effectively threaten the security of Israel,” Biden said, adding that on Sunday he would convene G7 leaders “to coordinate a united diplomatic response to Iran’s brazen attack”.

“My team will engage with their counterparts across the region. And we will stay in close touch with Israel’s leaders,” Biden said. “And while we have not seen attacks on our forces or facilities today, we will remain vigilant to all threats and will not hesitate to take all necessary action to protect our people.”

An IDF officer said the Israeli leadership would consider its response early on Sunday, and meanwhile Israel called for an emergency session of the UN security council to condemn the attack. The meeting is expected at 4pm on Sunday (9pm BST).

In the days leading up to the assault, US officials had predicted it would be an unprecedented operation launched from Iran on Israeli territory. They said that if it did not cause mass casualties, Washington would urge Israel to moderate its own response, to prevent tit-for-tat escalation spiralling out of control, drawing in other countries and the US itself.

Biden interrupted a weekend break at his house on Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and arrived back at the White House just after the first drones had been launched, and met his top security officials in the underground situation room. US surveillance planes in the region tracked the incoming attack, and US fighter jets shot down incoming drones and missiles.

The Jordanian air force was also reported to have intercepted some of the projectiles over its territory, and the UK’s Royal Air Force said it was contributing fighters and refuelling planes, mostly to fill in for the US in conducting aerial patrols over Iraq and Syria as part of its campaign against the Islamic State, but the defence secretary, Grant Shapps, said British planes could also “intercept airborne attacks within range of our existing missions”.

There had been nearly two weeks of speculation about when, where and how Tehran or its proxy forces would respond to the 1 April strike on an Iranian diplomatic building in the Syrian capital of Damascus which killed Gen Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior figure in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, and eight other officers.

Israeli officials almost never claim responsibility for attacks carried out on foreign soil. Tehran has blamed Israel for the strike.

Since the war in Gaza began six months ago, there have been near-daily exchanges of fire between Israeli forces and Hezbollah along the Israel-Lebanon border that have threatened to escalate into full-blown conflict.

A direct attack by Iran on Israel, however, was not believed to be on the cards: Tehran’s leaders have previously made clear that they are not seeking a war with Israel, which could also draw in the US.

Iran has never responded with such force to previous attacks, including many covert Israeli operations on its soil, or the US assassination of the powerful Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in 2020.