Israel uncovers Hezbollah tunnels in the North
Earlier this week on Tuesday, ISF announced that a cross-border Hezbollah tunnel has been destroyed as part of the Operation Northern Shield. This was the first tunnel ISF has discovered to destroy tunnels crossing the “Blue Line,” the border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel published by the United Nations in June 2000 to verify that Israel had fully withdrawn from Lebanon.
Operation Northern Shield is being led by the OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoel Strick and includes troops from the Combat Engineering Corps and the Military Intelligence Branch. As well, specialists from the Defense Ministry’s Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure (MAFAT) are taking part.
Israeli military experts believe that Lebanon’s Hezbollah – referred to by many as an army rather than a militant group – is the most significant strategic threat to Israel in the region. It has gained battlefield experience from fighting in Syria, and its organizational growth is cause for concern to ISF.
Unlike the south where Hamas tunnels are located, the North is very rocky, and ISF’s engineering work to uncover and destroy the tunnels is much more complicated, and the process might take weeks to complete.
It will likely take several days for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to conduct a full assessment and decide whether to respond or not. But according to sources, despite his frequent threats against Israel, Nasrallah is not interested in a war at this point.
Moreover, Lebanese Prime Minister Said Hariri said that his country was not seeking an escalation according to a statement from his office. Lebanon does not want an escalation and is seeking to maintain calm with “all international and friendly parties concerned,” Hariri said in his statement, without directly referring to the tunnels.
Lawmakers from the Lebanese parliament said Israel had no evidence to its claims, calling them a “distraction” and an attempt by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “evade” possible new indictment at home for corruption charges. Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, said Israel "did not present any information" at its weekly meeting with Lebanese military officials and UN peacekeepers. The peacekeepers said all sides agreed that a UN team would go to Israel Thursday to "ascertain the facts."
British and German diplomats joined the US in backing Israel in its operations on Wednesday, expressing its support to Israel in combating Hezbollah tunnels dug beneath the northern border and strongly condemned Hezbollah for its actions. In a tweet, Alistair Burt, British Minister of State for the Middle East said “The UK condemns Hezbollah tunnels into northern Israel. This is a blatant disregard of UN resolutions, threatening Israel and Lebanon’s stability. UNSCR 1701 must be implemented. The UK supports Israel’s right to defend itself.” German Ambassador to Israel Susanne Wasum-Rainer also said in a tweet that her government “strongly condemns the aggressive behavior of Hezbollah, as manifested in the tunnel system built in violation of Israel’s territorial integrity.”
Russia on the other hand, expressed tacit support on Wednesday for the efforts to expose Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels, while calling on both sides to show restraint lest the volatile situation on the Lebanese border escalates.
Moscow's comments came a day after the US gave unreserved support for the operation. US National Security Adviser John Bolton issued a statement saying that the US “strongly supports Israel's efforts to defend its sovereignty, and we call on Hezbollah to stop its tunneling into Israel and to refrain from escalation and violence.”
Hezbollah Tunnels a PR move?
According to Haaretz, a source briefed journalists saying that the security cabinet have been receiving intelligence updates on the tunnels in the north in recent months. On November 7, the engineering operation on the Lebanese border came up for discussion in the security cabinet, which voted to approve it, with the exception of one minister, Lieberman. The defense minister believed that a ground operation in Gaza was more urgent.
The engineering operation in the north was to begin a week later. But on the night of November 11, undercover Israeli forces near Khan Yunis in Gaza were exposed and a lieutenant colonel was killed.
According to that version, there's a close link between the latest developments in Gaza and in the north. Netanyahu and ISF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, it is claimed, have exaggerated the tunnel threat in the North as a way to postpone necessary action in Gaza.
Some speculate that Netanyahu and Eisenkot were skeptical about a Gaza operation, so they provided a reliably safe operation, but less essential, in the North. Such an operation serves the prime minister in two ways: It distracts the public's attention only two days after the Israeli police recommended to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges, and it once again presents him as a powerful politician who can meet the complex and changing challenges that Israel faces in the region.
Over the past decade, Israel and Hezbollah have largely maintained a standoff – the group has rarely launched attacks into Israel from Lebanon and Israel has rarely struck against the group on Lebanese soil. But in the past few years, Israel has struck dozens of times inside Syria at what it said were advanced weapon deliveries to Hezbollah.