Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Pieces of an Iranian missile in a pickup truck outside Arad, Israel, on April 14, 2024.SERGEY PONOMAREV/The New York Times News Service

Police trucked away the blackened remnants of a massive Iranian drone and missile attack from the deserts of southern Israel Sunday as the country’s war cabinet met to consider its response to the unprecedented strike that has pushed the region toward the precipice of a devastating war.

Both sides warned that they are prepared for further violence, an outcome U.S. President Joe Biden sought to thwart by saying that American forces will not participate in any counteroffensive on Iran. Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, however, said that conflict with Iran “is not over yet,” amid reports that the cabinet favours some form of retaliation but is divided on the scale and timing.

Tehran threatened to meet any Israeli counterattack with a response that is “stronger and more resolute,” and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei posted to social media images of missiles intercepted over Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock alongside a pledge, in Hebrew, that the city “will be in the hands of Muslims, and the Muslim world will celebrate the liberation of Palestine.”

The direct Iranian attack on Israel in the early hours of Sunday morning filled the skies with drones and missiles, a barrage that transfixed a sleepless country as its air defences illuminated the night with the fiery tails of downed projectiles, which did little physical damage.

Hours after it ended, Israel reopened its main airport and the patterns of daily life began to return, accompanied by searching questions about what course the country should now choose.

Iran said it ordered the strike in response to an April 1 Israeli attack on an Iranian diplomatic building in Syria that killed seven members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, two of them generals. Iran said it had acted in “legitimate defence,” but had no intention of further action to avenge the death of its generals.

“The matter can be deemed concluded,” Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations said in a statement made during the attack.

Iran’s offensive included roughly 120 ballistic missiles and 30 cruise missiles, along with some 170 drones. Israel, with assistance from U.S., Jordanian, French and British forces, boasted a 99-per-cent interception rate that knocked down much of the aerial fusillade before it could even cross into Israeli territory.

Israeli emergency services reported only one serious injury, to a Bedouin girl who was struck not by a missile but by falling debris from an interception.

“We intercepted. We blocked,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “Together, we will win.”

The thoroughness of the defence was so complete, and the scale of damage so limited, that observers suggested Iran’s attack seemed designed as a show of force rather than a provocation to war.

Iranian leaders “deserve the Nobel Prize for Peace for such an achievement,” said Yigal Carmon, a retired colonel who served in the intelligence corps of the Israel Defence Forces and acted as a counterterrorism adviser to two Israeli prime ministers.

The key question now is how Israel will respond.

Hours before Iran launched its drones and missiles, Mr. Netanyahu warned that “we have determined a clear principle: Whoever harms us, we will harm them. We will defend ourselves against any threat and will do so level-headedly and with determination.”

But Israel has no need to attack in kind, said Matan Vilnai, a former Israeli major-general who served as deputy chief of staff for the armed forces and as deputy minister of defence. He cited an adage from Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu: “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

“It’s better not to respond,” he said. “We achieved a failure of the enemy so loud and clear that we do not have to do anything.” He credited Israel’s investment in multiple layers of air defence, an effort that began in earnest after a series of Iraqi rocket attacks in 1991.

Defending against Iran has always been a central objective, and that project demonstrated its value Sunday morning.

“But they will try to do something else. We must be ready,” Mr. Vilnai said.

For a country that has spent six months waging war against militants in Gaza, the attack offers a moment of clarity, said Ehud Eiran, a political scientist who studies conflict resolution and negotiation at the University of Haifa.

“It reminds us that Iran is the real challenge,” he said, and that Israel relies on neighbours like Jordan and allies like the U.S., which both contributed to shooting down the Iranian projectiles.

Such a recognition has, in the past, motivated Israel toward resolution of Palestinian issues, although Prof. Eiran holds little hope of such an outcome with Israel’s current leadership.

Still, the physical display of Iranian force witnessed by so many Israelis stands to prompt a reckoning. Beni Sabti, an Iranian-born former military researcher, described a surreal sight of missiles falling like stars from the night sky. Israel cannot countenance such an attack and must respond, he said.

The stakes are high. Provoking conflict with Iran would almost certainly spur greater involvement by Hezbollah, Tehran’s terrorist proxy in Lebanon with an arsenal sufficiently immense to rip apart Israel.

“If Netanyahu brings in Hezbollah, the result will be another Middle East, not only another government for Israel,” said Mr. Sabti, who is now a researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, or INSS.

It all amounts to a grand dilemma, said Danny Citrinowicz, a former leader in Iran research for Israeli defence intelligence who is now at INSS. A counterattack risks war. Failure to respond risks projecting weakness and eroding deterrence.

Yet Israel could also gain from restraint. “Israel needs to capitalize on the current situation, to rebuild its legitimacy, which was really eroded with the events in Gaza,” Mr. Citrinowicz said.

The U.S. President, who spoke with Mr. Netanyahu early Sunday morning, pledged a “united diplomatic response” condemning the attack “in the strongest possible terms.”

In Canada, Justin Trudeau, too, expressed solidarity with Israel. “After supporting Hamas’s brutal October 7 attack, the Iranian regime’s latest actions will further destabilize the region and make lasting peace more difficult,” he said.

In a joint statement, leaders of the Group of Seven countries pledged efforts to prevent “uncontrollable regional escalation” in the Middle East.

Israelis, meanwhile, struggled to grapple with what they had experienced on Sunday, as they emerged from their safe rooms after an attack that kept many awake nearly until dawn. “We were quite stressing for a few hours,” said Illy Hagege, who recounted racing to buy water, bread and dry food.

“It would be fair to respond – but we don’t want to start a war,” she said in Tel Aviv Sunday.

For others, it underscored a feeling of defencelessness. In the stony desert of southern Israel, Bedouin father Muhammad al-Hassouni woke to the concussion of overhead explosions. The sky flashed with the light of explosions from Israeli interceptions as he rushed to get his family to safety in a nearby cave.

His eight-year-old daughter Amina, the youngest of 14 children, was the last to remain in the house when a fragment pierced a melon-sized hole into his tin roof shortly before 2 a.m. It struck Amina in the head, falling with enough speed to then gouge the tile and concrete floor. On Sunday afternoon, she was sedated in a hospital intensive care unit after surgery, her prognosis unclear, Mr. al-Hassouni said.

Iran, however, appears to have intended spectacle over serious damage, said Mr. Carmon, the retired colonel who is president and founder of the Middle East Media Research Institute.

Tehran said it provided neighbouring countries advance notice of its plans to launch its attack, which was mainly aimed at large military bases in Israel’s sparsely populated south.

“There will be no retaliation,” he predicted. “Why should there be? What do we want, war with them?”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe