On September 13, 1973, three weeks before the Yom Kippur War broke out, an air battle was waged between Israeli and Syrian fighter jets. According to Haaretz military correspondent Zeev Schiff, the results constituted "a record for the air force: 13 Syrian planes downed."
The first stage of the dogfight, which lasted for three to five minutes, was conducted between 12 Israeli Phantom and Mirage jets and 16 Syrian planes. Israel lost one jet while nine Syrian planes were shot down.
A second stage began when as Syria sent four additional fighter planes, all of which were shot down. In response, the Israel Air Force sent a force to take control of the airspace and enable a helicopter to rescue "anyone in need of help," that is to say, the Israeli Mirage pilot and a Syrian pilot who had parachuted 600 meters from each other.
According to reports, the fight took place above the Mediterranean about 200 kilometers northwest of the Israeli border, and began when the Syrians attacked an Israeli air patrol. The Syrian attack cost the Israeli air force a Mirage plane, but the pilot was rescued in good condition by an Israeli helicopter. The newspaper headline underscored the fact that the "Rescued pilot damaged Syrian plane before parachuting from jet."
One Syrian pilot was also rescued by the Israeli helicopter and taken to a hospital, where it was reported he "suffered mainly from an intake of sea water." Reports from Beirut said that four Syrian planes had fallen over Lebanese territory, and that one pilot was injured and hospitalized in Beirut. The fate of the other pilots was not known.
The Syrian attack began with an attempt by a fleet of MiG 21 planes to shoot down Israeli planes on a patrol mission above international waters. These flights were, according to Schiff, "routine Israel Air Force activity. Enemy planes usually refrained from provocations with Israeli flights, but yesterday the Syrians exhibited more than usual daring and attempted to start a battle. The Syrian planes began a chase in the direction of the sea, and only then did a fight ensue, during which 13 planes were downed. The Syrian planes opened fire first."
Air force commander Maj. Gen. Benjamin Peled called his first press conference since entering office, at his side, "a tall, handsome Mirage pilot, wearing his flight overalls, to tell about the battle."
The pilot explained that he was forced to abandon his plane when the engine caught fire. In answer to a question about how he would evaluate the Syrian pilots, he said, "Their work in formation was not at a high level, and the statistics prove this. Individually, they have no chance [to win] in combat."
Responses from Israel and abroad quickly poured in. Alongside condemnation expressed by governments and organizations, there was also a letter to the editor from Nora Platinowitz of Ganei Yehuda, who protested the Israeli flights. "If Syrian or Egyptian planes fly along the Israeli shore, outside [the boundaries of] international waters, we would look on this as a provocation, as an instance of obvious provocation by the enemy, and send our planes against them," she wrote. "What took place on September 13 was the complete opposite."
Platinowitz ended her letter with the reservation that while it is apparently necessary to test the responses of the other side from time to time, "Israel's foreign policy cannot be conducted according to purely military considerations. Our behavior, playing with fire, toys with our destiny."
Damascus filed a complaint over the incident with the UN Security Council, and protests were lodged from Arab countries, the Arab League offices in Cairo, and from Communist bloc countries. Meir Wilner, secretary of Rakah, the Israeli Communist Party, said that "Rakah sees the Israel Air Force action against the Syrian air force, far from Israel's borders, as an aggression and an initiative worthy of condemnation." (Yael Greenfetter )
photo : A Mirage III in the Israeli Air Force Museum, marked with 13 shots down -
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