Israel says Iran attack 'foiled' amid fears of wider conflict

Iran's proxies and allies also carried out coordinated attacks on Israeli positions as sirens sounded in many places and AFP correspondents heard blasts in the skies above Jerusalem early Sunday.
A panoramic view of Jerusalem's Old City is pictured at dawn of April 14, 2024, after Iran launched a drone and missile attack on Israel. (Photo: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP)
A panoramic view of Jerusalem's Old City is pictured at dawn of April 14, 2024, after Iran launched a drone and missile attack on Israel. (Photo: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP)

JERUSALEM, Undefined (AFP) - Iran's unprecedented overnight attack on Israel has been "foiled", the Israeli military said Sunday, with hundreds of missiles and drones intercepted with the help of the United States and allies.

The attack which began late Saturday marks a major escalation of the long-running covert war between the regional foes, and comes against the backdrop of the ongoing war between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Iran's proxies and allies also carried out coordinated attacks on Israeli positions as sirens sounded in many places and AFP correspondents heard blasts in the skies above Jerusalem early Sunday.

Iran had repeatedly threatened to retaliate against Israel for a deadly April 1 air strike on its Damascus consular building, and Washington had warned in recent days that the reprisals were imminent.

Late Saturday, the Israeli army said Iran had launched a "massive swarm of over 200 killer drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles".

The army said it had scrambled dozens of fighter jets to intercept "all aerial threats", and was working with the US and other allies to stop the launches.

People in Jerusalem sought cover, while some residents stockpiled water.

"As you can see it's empty, everybody is running home," said Eliyahu Barakat, a 49-year-old grocery shop owner in Jerusalem's Mamilla neighbourhood.

Early Sunday, the Israeli army said that 99 percent of the launches had been intercepted.

"The Iranian attack was foiled," military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said in a televised statement.

US President Joe Biden reiterated Washington's "ironclad" support for Israel after an urgent meeting with his top security officials on the spiralling crisis.

'Stay away'  

Iran's Revolutionary Guards confirmed a drone and missile attack was launched against Israel in retaliation for the Damascus strike which killed seven Guards, two of them generals.

The Guards said ballistic missiles were fired almost an hour after the slower moving drones.

Hundreds of Iranians gathered in Tehran's Palestine Square waving Iranian and Palestinian flags in a show of support for the military action against Israel.

Iran's allies in the region joined the attack, with Yemen's Tehran-backed Huthi rebels also launching drones at Israel, according to security agency Ambrey.

Lebanon's Hezbollah movement announced it had fired rockets at Israeli positions in the annexed Golan Heights around the same time, as well as a second barrage hours later.

Tehran's official IRNA news agency said the attack had dealt "heavy blows" to an air base in the Negev desert, but the Israeli army said there had only been minor damage.

The Iranian mission to the United Nations warned Washington to keep out of Iran's conflict with Israel.

"It is a conflict between Iran and the rogue Israeli regime, from which the U.S. MUST STAY AWAY!" it said.

It added that it hoped Iran's action to punish the strike on its diplomatic mission would lead to no further escalation and "the matter can be deemed concluded".

But despite Tehran's warning not to get involved, US forces took part in shooting down drones aimed at Israel.

'Take the win' 

Biden said in a statement that the United States had "helped Israel take down nearly all of the incoming drones and missiles".

The US president later said he told Netanyahu during a phone call "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".

News outlet Axios said Biden had told Netanyahu that he would oppose an Israeli counterattack against Iran and that he should "take the win".

Before Tehran launched its attack on Saturday, the Israeli military warned Iran it would suffer the "consequences for choosing to escalate the situation any further".

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak condemned Iran's "reckless" action and pledged his government would "continue to stand up for Israel's security".

France echoed the commitment to Israel, with Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne saying "Iran has reached a new level of destabilisation".

Egypt, which regularly acts as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, said it was in "direct contact with all sides to the conflict to try to contain the situation". 

And regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia urged parties to exercise "restraint and spare the region and its peoples from the dangers of war".

China, meanwhile, characterised the attack as "the latest spillover of the Gaza conflict" and called for the implementation of a recent UN Security Council resolution demanding a ceasefire in the besieged Palestinian territory, saying more than six months of fighting "must end now".

The Security Council was to meet at around 2000 GMT Sunday to discuss the latest crisis at Israel's request, its current president Malta said.

Biden said he would also convene his fellow leaders of the G7 group of wealthy nations on Sunday to coordinate a "united diplomatic response" to Iran's "brazen" attack.

Earlier on Saturday, Iran's Revolutionary Guards seized an Israeli-linked container vessel in the Gulf earlier on Saturday, putting the whole region on alert.

Indian officials said there were 17 Indian citizens on board the Aries, while the Philippine government said that four of its nationals were also aboard.

The April 1 strike in Damascus, which killed 16 people, including two Iranian generals, had been widely blamed on Israel. Iran had repeatedly vowed to hit back, but had not specified how.

Shortly before the launches, Netanyahu said Israel was prepared for a "direct attack from Iran".

Israel has closed its airspace but reopened it at 0430 GMT, according to its airport authority. Schools nationwide did not open on Sunday.

Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon also announced they were temporarily closing their airspace.

Gaza stalemate 

Fighting in Gaza meanwhile has ground on, with Israel's military saying Saturday it had struck more than 30 Hamas targets across Gaza.

The war began with the unprecedented October 7 attack by Hamas against Israel, resulting in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,686 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the territory's Hamas-run health ministry. 

Hamas said it had submitted its response to a truce plan presented by US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators at talks in Cairo this week.

Israel described the Hamas as a "rejection" of the latest proposal, with the Mossad spy agency saying the Palestinian group does not "want a humanitarian deal and the return of the hostages".

Hamas has said it was sticking to its previous demands, insisting on "a permanent ceasefire" and the "withdrawal of the (Israeli) occupation army from the entire Gaza Strip".

Mossad accused Hamas of "continuing to exploit the tension with Iran" and aiming for "a general escalation in the region".