Tensions between Israel and Hezbollah have risen sharply following the discovery of attack tunnels and awarning by the terror chief’s deputy head this weekend that its rockets can now hit the entire country “even Tel Aviv”.
Last week, Israel began a major military operation on its northern border in order to expose and destroy Hezbollah tunnels crossing from Lebanon into the Galilee region. The Israeli military has so far confirmed the existence of three tunnels, but reports suggest there may be as many as 10. Although not yet fully operational, the IDF say the tunnels are designed to allow Hezbollah to launch a surprise attack and infiltrate “entire battalions” into Israel.
Two tunnels – one which crosses from the Lebanese village of Kafr Kila to just south of the Israeli town of Metulla and another near the Israeli community of Yiftah, across the border from the Lebanese village of Meiss al-Jabal – have been prepared for destruction by the IDF.
The UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL has so far confirmed the existence of two of the three tunnels, with its commander stating: “UNIFIL is continuing to follow up on this issue in close coordination with the Lebanese Armed Forces.”
Israel had initially said it intended to carry out Operation Northern Shield without its forces crossing into Lebanon. However, the IDF has failed to enter a third tunnel – which snakes from the Lebanese village of Ramyeh to the Israeli town of Zarit – and has requested that either the Lebanese army or UNIFIL destroy it. Israeli ministers have indicated that they may be forced to cross the border if Lebanese or UN forces fail to respond to that request. “If we think that in order to thwart the tunnels that one needs to operate on the other side, then we will operate on the other side of the border,” Israel Katz, the intelligence and transport secretary, suggested this weekend.
Nonetheless, the IDF has also been closely coordinating its efforts with UNIFIL and, through it, the Lebanese Armed Forces in order to prevent misunderstandings and potential clashes.
The IDF has also warned Lebanese residents of Ramyeh and Kafr Kila that their homes may not be safe given Hezbollah’s tunnelling. “Hezbollah put an explosive barrel under your homes,” the IDF’s Arabic spokesman Tweeted on Sunday. “We do not know that the consequences of the operations will be for the homes on the Lebanese side.”
On Saturday, three suspected Hezbollah fighters approached Israeli territory but fled after warning shots were fired. The IDF suspect they intended to interfere with sensor devices and disrupt its work destroying the tunnels.
The IDF says that it first became aware of defensive tunnels constructed by Hezbollah during the 2006 war between Israel and the Iranian-backed terror group. Six years later, it suggests, Hezbollah began developing a plan of attack – “Conquering the Galilee” – to launch assaults inside Israeli cities and towns. A year later, the IDF examined suspicions the terror group was tunnelling near the border, but found nothing.
However, the discovery of a network of Hamas terror tunnels during the 2014 war, combined with reports by residents in northern Israel about strange underground sounds and constructions close to the border on the Lebanese side reignited those suspicions. They were soon confirmed and Israel has put technology in place to monitor locals’ reports and take defensive measures at some points along the border. Several months ago, the IDF detected tunnels crossing the so-called “blue line” – the border demarcation designated by the UN in 2000 when Israeli forces fully withdrew from southern Lebanon.
Last month, the Israeli military requested permission from the security cabinet to launch an operation against the tunnels “once the conditions were ripe”. That operation commenced last Tuesday, with the IDF declaring the discovery of tunnels crossing into Israel “the most blatant proof of the violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the Second Lebanon War”.
Images of one of the Kafr Kila tunnel released by Israel shows the scale and sophistication of Hezbollah’s efforts. An estimated two years under construction, the tunnel is about two meters tall and two metres wide and includes ventilation systems, electricity and piping. It was dug 25 metres underground and is 200 metres long.
Israeli officials say Hezbollah could have used the tunnels to send “entire battalions” into Israel, buttressing rocket attacks and an over ground assault.
Visiting the area with foreign diplomats, Benjamin Netanyahu suggested: “If you look at the Hamas tunnels, they’re very narrow, basically for one person. The Hezbollah tunnels are broad. They enable several people to come at once and also to bring motorcycles, I’m pretty sure tractors and so on.” This, he argued, was “in order to bring in many forces, simultaneously, which means several battalions into our territory, with the purpose of cutting off communities here, towns, kibbutzim, and then going on a campaign of murder and kidnapping, which could happen simultaneously.”
Israel’s prime minister labelled Hezbollah’s tunnels “a double war crime”, stating that they were not only designed to “seize land and kidnap and kill Israelis” but also endangered Lebanese civilians. “I have a message for the people of Lebanon,” he said. “Hezbollah is putting your lives in danger. They are sacrificing your well-being to serve the aggressive purposes of Iran.”
He noted that “These cross-border terror tunnels were built by Hezbollah with direct support and funding from Iran. They were built with one purpose in mind – to attack and murder innocent Israeli men, women and children. This is a grave violation of Israel’s sovereignty, and a gross violation of UN Security Council Resolution #1701. It is an unacceptable act of wanton aggression.”
The tunnel uncovered on Tuesday, he added, “was built under a home in a civilian neighbourhood in southern Lebanon. Now, this is just one more example of how Hezbollah is committing a double war crime. They target civilians while hiding behind civilians. And this must be condemned loudly and clearly by all nations that care about peace, freedom and human dignity.”
Netanyahu has also hinted that Operation Northern Shield may simply be the opening stage in a wider campaign against Hezbollah.
“What we will reveal to you now,” he stated last week, “is only a small piece of the big picture of our efforts and our actions to ensure our security on all fronts. We are taking everything into account and all is being done with the utmost deliberation.”
The prime minister’s words may be a reference to Israeli efforts against Hezbollah’s arsenal of some 150,000 rockets, some of which are thought capable of reaching all parts of the Jewish state.
Israel has long been concerned that, under cover of the Syrian civil war, Iran has been constructing missile factories to improve the accuracy and capabilities of its proxy army’s unguided missiles (Hezbollah has been fighting alongside its patron to shore up the Assad regime).
“Israel is now facing a more dangerous enemy, trained and practiced from a prolonged ground war,” the Times of Israel’s Avi Issacharoff wrote.
“Hezbollah had a vast number of rockets before the Syrian civil war erupted, although most of them were not accurate. Now, under Iranian guidance in Syria and Lebanon, it is working to change that. The factories for producing accurate missiles that Hezbollah is working to establish, with the assistance of Iran’s Republican Guards Corps, will give the Shiite terror organisation impressive capabilities to damage Israeli infrastructure, both military and civilian — the kind of damage that will make the 2006 conflict, when it last battled Israel and rained down rockets on the north of the country, look like a walk in the park.”
Hezbollah has done nothing to disguise this ambition. Over the weekend, its deputy chief, Naim Qassem,told an Iranian news site: “The entire Israeli homefront is exposed, even Tel Aviv.” “There is no point in the Zionist entity that is not in the range of Hezbollah’s rockets,” he argued.
As Zionist Union MK Eyal Ben-Reuven, a retired general who commanded Israeli ground troops in the 2006 war, suggested: “A terror organisation, unlike a country, doesn’t stockpile weapons for deterrence but in order to use them one day. I suspect they will now try to goad Israel. … The war the Israeli military has to prepare for is the one against Hezbollah.”