It targets civilians, hides behind civilians -- double crime

Ahead of UN discussion, Netanyahu calls Hezbollah tunnel-digging ‘act of war’

PM says Lebanese army has been a ‘total failure,’ failing to confront Shiite terror group; urges Putin not to defend Hezbollah at Security Council

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Ahead of a United Nations Security Council meeting on the attack tunnels Hezbollah dug across the Lebanese-Israeli border, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday urged the international community to take decisive action against the Shiite terrorist group.

At an English-language press conference at the Knesset, Netanyahu called Hezbollah’s tunnel-digging an “act of war,” and accused the Lebanese Armed Forces of doing nothing to counter those acts. While Beirut did not know about the tunnels while they were being dug, its military now knows but still fails to act, he maintained.

He also revealed that he recently spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a bid to convince Moscow not to defend Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors during Wednesday’s Security Council session.

Netanyahu said that the four tunnels the Israeli army has so far discovered in its recently launched, ongoing effort to uncover such passages were aimed to “penetrate our territory, kidnap our people, including civilians, murder civilians, and conquer the northern piece of the Galilee. This is not merely an act of aggression. It’s an act of war. It’s part of a war plan, I would say.”

The interior of what Israel says is an attack tunnel dug by the Hezbollah terror group that crossed into Israeli territory from southern Lebanon, from footage released by the military on December 18, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Every third house in South Lebanon is used in one way or another to hide Hezbollah’s tunnel-digging project, the prime minister charged. “It’s targeting Israeli civilians while hiding behind Lebanese civilians. That’s a double war crime,” he charged.

“We expect Lebanon to take action against this, to protest against this, not to give in to this. And the fact that the Lebanese is army does nothing means that they’re either unable or unwilling, or both, to do anything about this. But it doesn’t absolve Lebanon’s culpability… We hold Lebanon accountable,” he declared.

Turning his attention to the session at Turtle Bay, scheduled for 5 p.m. Israel time, Netanyahu made a list of demands: “I call on all the members of the Security Council to condemn Hezbollah’s wanton acts of aggression; to designate Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization; to press for heightened sanctions against Hezbollah; to demand that Lebanon stop allowing its territory to be used as an act of aggression, and its citizens to be used as pawns; to support Israel’s right to defend itself against Iranian-inspired and Iranian-conducted aggression.”

In this December 13, 2018, photo, Israeli military equipment works on the Lebanese-Israeli border in front of the Israeli town of Metula, background, near the southern village of Kafr Kila, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

He also urged the 15 members of the council to demand that the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, “fully meet its mandate and deepen its operations.” UNIFIL must be given “unrestricted access to any area” before Hezbollah can destroy the evidence of its tunnel-digging operation, he said.

“In the meantime, Israel will continue to take all the necessary action to protect our people and defend our borders.”

To the best of his knowledge, the Lebanese army was unaware of Hezbollah’s project to build terror tunnels into Israel, he said, responding to a reporter’s question. “Very few people knew about it, period. But they know about it now, and they should be uncovering them and neutralizing them. It’s their obligation.”

In reality, however, the Lebanese military “very often cooperates with Hezbollah,” he lamented. “It certainly doesn’t challenge Hezbollah. And it often directs its weapons against us,” Netanyahu added, referring to a recent incident at the Blue Line.

“The Lebanese Army has been a total failure in this regard,” he went on. “They failed to take action to control their own territory. They failed to take action to prevent the use of their territory against the territory of a neighboring state. And they failed to dislodge the tyrannical Hezbollah. They haven’t even tried.”

Ahead of today’s UN Security Council discussion, Netanyahu urged Putin to “take the right stance, which is to condemn Hezbollah and not be either supportive of them or neutral,” he said.

“Russia often says it wants to prevent another war. The way to prevent another war is to prevent Hezbollah from acting aggressively against Israel from Lebanon. Same thing for Iran. I said that to Mr. Putin many times.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Netanyahu said Hezbollah had closed sites in Lebanon’s capital Beirut at which precision missiles were allegedly made after he revealed their locations in a speech to the UN General Assembly.

IDF troops uncover a tunnel leading into Israeli territory from southern Lebanon, which Israel says was dug by the Hezbollah terror group, on December 11, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Speaking at the Globes Business Conference in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said the exposure of the sites was part of Israeli efforts to prevent the Iran-backed Shiite organization from amassing an arsenal of highly accurate missiles. It is now working to set up new production facilities, he alleged.

“They planned to already have thousands of precision missiles. At best they have just dozens,” Netanyahu said.

In his September speech, the prime minister displayed a map pinpointing the location of the Hezbollah sites near Beirut’s airport and accused the terror group of “deliberately using the innocent people of Beirut as human shields.”

Israel has so far uncovered four passages crossing into Israel from Lebanon, and the UNIFIL peacekeeping force has confirmed their existence and acknowledged that the tunnels violate UN resolution 1701, adopted at the end of the 2006 Second Lebanon War. UNIFIL said Tuesday at least two of the tunnels crossed into Israeli territory.

“It is time for the Security Council to employ all its means against the terror infrastructure of Hezbollah, which continues to gain strength under the Lebanese government,” Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon said in a statement.

Israel launched Operation Northern Shield, an effort to find and destroy the tunnels it attributes to the Iran-backed terrorist group, earlier this month.

The operation has raised prospects of a possible fresh conflict on the volatile border, though Lebanon has downplayed chances of war, so long as Israeli troops do not cross its territory. UN peacekeepers, meanwhile, have stepped up their patrols to ensure that the frontier remains calm.

On Monday, UNIFIL declared that cross-border attack tunnels dug from southern Lebanon into Israel were a violation of the UN resolution that ended the 2006 conflict, saying it had confirmed that at least two tunnels crossed into Israel. UN Resolution 1701 called for all armed groups in Lebanon besides the country’s military to remain north of the Litani River.

In this Thursday, December 13, 2018, photo, UN peacekeepers hold their flag, as they observe Israeli excavators working near the southern border village of Mays al-Jabal, Lebanon. (AP/Hussein Malla)

Israel has for years claimed that Hezbollah has been violating Resolution 1701 by conducting military activities along the border. UNIFIL has largely rebuffed those allegations, and its announcement on Monday represented one of the few cases in which it has confirmed a violation of the UN resolution.

On Monday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri met with UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, telling him that Beirut remained committed to upholding UN Resolution 1701.

The military said it believes the tunnels were meant to be used by Hezbollah as a surprise component of an opening salvo in a future war, to allow dozens or hundreds of terrorists into Israel, alongside a mass infiltration of operatives above-ground and the launching of rockets, missiles, and mortar shells at northern Israel.

Times of Israel staff and Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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