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Iran launches massive drone and missile attack against Israel

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JERUSALEM — Iran launched a massive attack fleet of missiles and more than 100 drones toward Israel late Saturday, a stunning assault that put the Israeli military on high alert and threatened to unleash more violence in an already turbulent region. Interceptions by Israel’s sophisticated air and missile defense systems began early Sunday, causing loud booms over Jerusalem and air raid sirens to sound across the country.

The military warned citizens to brace for an attack of undetermined scale, as combat aircraft filled the sky over much of Israel. Officials closed schools and banned large gatherings as some airports in the region halted operations. U.S. forces also took down Iranian attack drones, said U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

And Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said in brief remarks that it would take several hours for the drones to reach Israel, leaving citizens to endure a dread-filled countdown until the early hours of Sunday. Many families had already heeded warning to equip safe rooms and shelters with water and food. The military said it had lifted a shield of fighter planes and air-defense systems over Israel and intended to intercept as many of the aircraft as it could before they entered Israeli airspace.

“Continue to act responsibly and calmly, as you have done so far, and be sure to follow the guidelines,” Hagari said. “The IDF is prepared and ready across all its defensive and offensive systems; we have prepared for a variety of scenarios in advance.”

Hagari later said Iran had launched missiles from its territory. “You may hear explosions from interceptions or debris falling,” he warned.

A military official said the IDF was monitoring for additional waves of airborne attacks.

President Biden was helicoptered from his Delaware beach house to Washington, where he convened his national security team and was receiving regular updates in the White House situation room, the White House said.

Intelligence reports had swelled for days with warnings that Tehran was poised to retaliate for a deadly airstrike on an Iranian embassy complex in Syria presumed to have been carried out by Israel. The administration, fearing that U.S. troops might also be targeted, began last week to dispatch more ships and warplanes to the region.

After six months of war in Gaza and fire from Iran-backed militants in Lebanon and Yemen, leaders and analysts from Washington to Cairo have warned that an attack from Tehran, especially one launched directly from Iran on Israel, could spark an even wider conflagration. Numerous top administration figures warned Iran in recent days that the United States’ support for Israel’s security was “ironclad.”

“The United States will stand with the people of Israel and support their defense against these threats from Iran,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in statement.

But earlier Saturday, Iran appeared to brush aside the cautions when Revolutionary Guard naval forces stormed the MSC Aries, an Israel-affiliated ship near the Strait of Hormuz, and diverted the vessel to Iranian territorial waters.

Shortly after the launch of “dozens” of drones, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said the airborne attack was aimed at “specific targets” in Israel. Iranian state media said the swarm of attack drones was meant avenge the seven people, including two senior members of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, who were killed in the Damascus airstrike.

Israel’s war cabinet went into an emergency session at midnight Saturday, and the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had spoken with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Officials in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq closed airports and restricted airspace.

“There is no question this is an escalation. There is no question that the Iranians have now given Israel the legitimacy to attack on Iranian soil,” Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli brigadier general and national security adviser, said in an interview.

Tensions in the region quickly spiked to perhaps their highest levels since the Oct. 7 attack on Israeli towns by Hamas and the ensuing war in Gaza.

Israel has exchanged fire across its border almost daily with Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon, and officials directed residents of some northern towns to seek shelter after air raid sirens sounded early Sunday. Yemen-based Houthi rebels, another Iranian proxy group, have launched hundreds of drones and missiles at Red Sea shipping and toward Israel.

But until now, a full-fledged attack by any of the Tehran-backed forces — which Hamas leader Yehiya Sinwar called for — had not materialized.

“We don’t want to fight multiple major wars at once, and so far, we haven’t had to,” an Israeli official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss security matters. “But we are ready tot, and maybe that is where we are.”

Military experts said Israeli multilevel air defense networks, along with U.S.-built F-35 fighter jets, have proved effective against a range of airborne threats. Israel’s well-known Iron Dome system has frequently shown an interception rate of well over 90 percent during rocket attacks from Islamist militants in Gaza.

But with the scale and duration of the attack still unclear, they warned that Iran was capable of deploying a fearsome arsenal.

“With a combination of drones, cruise missiles and likely ballistic missiles to come, what they are trying to do is to overwhelm the system,” Amidror said. “Each is problematic by itself, but together they are more challenging. This is unprecedented. It means Iran opened a new chapter in the war.”

The IDF said it was immediately focused on defending against the attacks and would determine its response at a later time. Officials said they intended to intercept as many of the drones as possible before they reached Israeli airspace.

“If we’re not successful, then we will do what we do and what we have been doing for the last six months over Israeli skies,” the IDF official said.

Iran’s U.N. mission in New York said on X that the attack should be taken as its promised response to the strike on its diplomatic compound and that the “matter can be deemed concluded.”

But the post continued, “Should the Israeli regime make another mistake, Iran’s response will be considerably more severe. It is a conflict between Iran and the rogue Israeli regime, from which the U.S. MUST STAY AWAY!”

Lior Soroka and Alon Rom in Tel Aviv; Loveday Morris in Berlin and Susannah George in Muscat, Oman, contributed to this report.

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