The Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday called up a small number of reservists, as it prepared for a potential retaliation by Hezbollah in response to a newly launched effort to find and destroy cross-border attack tunnels the military says the terror group has been digging into Israeli territory.
Additional tanks, artillery cannons, and armored personnel carriers were also spotted on highways leading up to northern Israel.
As of Tuesday evening, the Israeli military has refrained from a mass call-up of reservists, preferring instead to enlist those from select combat engineering, administrative and air defense units, as the IDF does during most periods of increased tensions and unrest.
An army spokesperson stressed that the call-up was “seriously limited,” but refused to comment on the specific number of people brought in.
The Combat Engineering Corps reservists were meant to assist in the counter-tunnel effort. The Air Force units were called up in order to provide additional manpower to Israel’s various air defense batteries. Hezbollah is believed to have an arsenal of over 100,000 rockets and missiles — larger than that of many European countries.
On Tuesday, the military said it uncovered the “first of sure to be many” cross-border attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah, as part of its newly launched Operation Northern Shield.
The tunnel was found south of the Israeli town of Metulla along the Lebanese border. The army said it was some 200 meters (650 feet) long, extending some 40 meters (120 feet) into Israeli territory.
According to the IDF, the tunnel originated under a house in the Lebanese village of Kafr Kila.
The army said the tunnel was not yet operational and did not present an immediate threat to residents of the area.
This was the first tunnel that the Israel Defense Forces has said it discovered as part of Northern Shield.
“At this time, having exposed the tunnel, IDF soldiers are conducting engineering and operational efforts before neutralizing it,” the army said in a statement.
The Israeli military has refused to comment on how it plans to destroy the tunnel, with some speculating that the army will fill it with concrete in order to seal it off. In the past, the IDF has also used explosives to demolish tunnels.
Though for now the army’s activities are limited to the Israeli side of the Blue Line — the internationally recognized armistice line that acts as a de facto border between Israel and Lebanon — IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis indicated that other tunnels may be destroyed within Lebanon as well.
“We are prepared for all options, and the operation is only in its first day. The neutralizing of the tunnels will not necessarily take place within our territory,” he said.
Defense analysts have warned that while Hezbollah is unlikely to react so long as the IDF keeps its activities within Israel, the Iran-backed terror group may retaliate if the tunnel-busting effort crosses the border or results in deaths among its operatives.
The army said the tunnel was dug some 25 meters (80 feet) below the ground, and was two meters (six feet) tall by two meters (six feet) wide, significantly larger than most of the tunnels dug by the Hamas terror group in Gaza.
According to the IDF, the tunnel took over two years to excavate — due to the harsh terrain under the border — and contained electrical and communication lines as well as ventilation.
“Hezbollah has been using industrial equipment in order to dig these tunnels. We are beginning to assess and analyze the findings,” Conricus told reporters.
In a tweet in English, the army added that the tunnel was dug “with the intention of harming Israeli civilians.”
The IDF also described the cross-border tunnels as a “flagrant and blatant violation of Israeli sovereignty.”
The army lauded itself for finding the tunnels. According to Conricus, Hezbollah’s program to build the underground infrastructure was kept “ultra secret” within the terrorist organization.
The IDF spokesman said the IDF’s effort to find and destroy Hezbollah’s tunnels was also kept on a need-to-know basis.
“It was deeply compartmentalized. Only a select few who needed to know were involved in this operation,” Conricus said.
That secrecy ended on Tuesday, with the public launching of Operation Northern Shield on to uncover and destroy the tunnels.
“We’re trying to nip them in the bud,” Conricus said.
The military said it believed the tunnels were for offensive purposes, unlike the tunnels and underground bunkers used by Hezbollah during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, which were primarily utilized as defensive measures.
“This was part of a surprise component of [Hezbollah’s] plan,” Conricus said.
According to the IDF, approximately seven years ago, Hezbollah created a special forces unit — known as the Radwan Unit — specifically tasked with crossing into Israel and causing as much mayhem and destruction as possible both for the sake of the damage to Israel itself and for the “symbolism” of having troops carry out attacks inside Israel.
Tuesday’s operation came as tensions on Israel’s northern border have ramped up in recent days, and hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Brussels for a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss Iran and the Hezbollah tunnels.
Last Friday, the Lebanese terror group issued a warning video to Israel apparently filled with satellite images and precise map locations of strategic sites in the Jewish state, with a message: “Attack and you will regret it.”
The video was posted after an alleged Israeli airstrike on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria the night before.
The video, with Hebrew subtitles, opened with scenes of Hezbollah fighters preparing to launch rockets and leader Hassan Nasrallah warning that the Lebanese terror group would respond to any attack on Lebanon.
Israeli security chiefs were holding security assessments throughout the day Tuesday in order to deal with any possible Hezbollah reaction to the IDF operation.
The Israeli military’s Arabic-language spokesperson called on Hezbollah members and Lebanese civilians to keep away from the tunnels. “You’ve been warned,” he wrote on Twitter.
A spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL, which is meant to enforce UN Resolution 1701, told The Times of Israel that it was aware of the reports that the IDF was launching Operation Northern Shield and was maintaining contact with “all relevant interlocutors to ensure that the parties use the UNIFIL liaison and coordination mechanisms to maintain the continued calm and stability.”
“The situation in UNIFIL’s area of operation remains calm,” the spokesperson said, noting that the peacekeeping force has stepped up patrols in the area.
Israel has long said that Hezbollah planned to conduct cross-border raids in any future conflict, with the specific goal of attacking and conquering a civilian town near the border. Northern residents have raised fears in recent years of attack tunnels being dug under the border, spurring the IDF to launch a task force to investigate the concerns in 2014.
“[Hezbollah’s] main goal is to kill as many people as they can in [Israeli] villages and army bases,” a senior officer IDF officer said earlier this year, in a briefing to reporters on the Lebanese border.
The IDF operation began in the predawn hours of Tuesday morning. The military declared the area around the community of Metulla a closed military zone, but gave no other special instructions to Israeli civilians in the area.