'We destroyed all the attack tunnels into northern Israel'

Ex-IDF chief dismisses Hezbollah claim of more cross-border attack tunnels

Gadi Eisenkot, in first remarks as a civilian, praises Israel’s achievements in fighting Iran and its proxies, defends decision not to attack in Gaza

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, right, is interviewed by Amos Yadlin at the Institute for National Security Studies annual conference in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2019. (INSS)
Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, right, is interviewed by Amos Yadlin at the Institute for National Security Studies annual conference in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2019. (INSS)

Former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot flatly denied on Sunday a claim made by the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, about the existence of additional attack tunnels dug by the Lebanese terror group into northern Israel.

“[Nasrallah’s] claim that there are things we don’t know about is baseless,” Eisenkot said, referring to comments made by the terrorist leader during a three-hour-long interview with the pro-Hezbollah al-Mayadeen TV on Saturday.

On December 4, Israel launched Operation Northern Shield to find and destroy Hezbollah cross-border attack tunnels, and on January 13, the military announced it had found all of the passages and was working to demolish them.

Hezbollah terror group leader Hassan Nasrallah is interviewed on the al-Mayadeen Lebanese television channel, January 26, 2019 (Screen capture)

“We assessed that there was a [tunnel] project like this, and beginning in 2014 we had specific knowledge of the program. When we decided to act, we acted. And in six weeks we destroyed all the attack tunnels into northern Israel,” the former general said.

“We have clear knowledge that this project was foiled,” he said.

Nasrallah, in his interview, had claimed: “The uncovering of the tunnels does not affect by 10 percent our plans to take over the Galilee. If we decide to do it — even if they’ve destroyed the tunnels — can’t we rebuild them?” He also suggested there may be attack tunnels on the Israeli-Lebanese border which Israel has not yet discovered.

Israeli troops search for attack tunnels dug into Israel from southern Lebanon that the Israeli military believes Hezbollah planned to use in future wars, in January 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Eisenkot also confirmed a claim made by Nasrallah that some of the tunnels were over a decade old.

The former IDF chief, whose tenure ended earlier this month, was speaking at the opening event of a three-day annual conference organized by Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, in his first public remarks since leaving the military on January 15.

Eisenkot lauded the IDF for countering Hezbollah’s and Iran’s efforts during his tenure, but said that his focus on the northern front left some Israelis feeling that the IDF was not taking as seriously the regular attacks by Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

“I compare it to an iceberg,” the former army chief said.

Israeli civilians see the IDF’s operations in Gaza and the West Bank because they are closer to home and more visible, but they are unaware of the military’s efforts to fight Hezbollah, Iran and the Islamic State — the bulk of the army’s activities — because they happen far away and under the cover of secrecy, he said.

Illustrative: A masked Palestinian man launches a balloon loaded with flammable materials toward Israel from the southern Gaza town of Rafah on June 17, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

“But [the average Israeli citizen] judges based only on what they see, and what they see is the campaign in the south with the balloons,” the former army chief said, referring to regular airborne arson attacks from Gaza, which destroyed thousands of acres of Israeli farmland.

Eisenkot boasted that in addition to destroying Hezbollah’s attack tunnels, the IDF had thwarted the group’s plans to develop and manufacture precision-guided missiles.

He said that the military had also prevented Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah from establishing a second front in Syria from which to fight against the Jewish state.

“This project was basically foiled,” he said.

According to Eisenkot, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its expeditionary wing, the Quds Force, had “grandiose” plans to turn Syrian into an Iranian puppet state, but they were blocked by Israel.

Still, he walked back somewhat overly enthusiastic comments made by him and other senior Israeli officials about the military’s victory over Iran in Syria.

“The Iranian military presence still exists, but the gap between the goal that the Quds Force set in 2015-2016 and the reality that exists in the beginning of 2019 is significant,” he said.

An explosion, reportedly during Israeli airstrikes near Damascus, Syria, on January 21, 2019. (screen capture: YouTube)

Israel has long accused Iran of seeking to establish a permanent military presence in Syria and vowed to prevent such a situation. To that end, the Israeli military has conducted hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets, including last week, after the IDF said Iran launched a medium-range surface-to-surface missile at the Golan Heights.

Eisenkot, who widely discussed Israel’s fight against Iran in media interviews in the final weeks of his tenure, maintained that the country still abides by a policy of “ambiguity,” under which it does not discuss the specifics of its activities in Syria.

The belief among many defense officials in Israel is that this policy gives the Jewish state’s enemies “deniability” and takes the pressure off them to retaliate, lest they lose face by being known publicly to have been attacked by the IDF.

“The ambiguity policy was correct and remains so,” Eisenkot said.

The former army chief credited some of the military’s achievements under his watch to regional developments that allowed the IDF to focus on Iran and cooperate with Sunni Muslim countries with which Israel does not have formal ties.

According to Eisenkot, one of the main threats that brought together the Muslim world was the one posed by the Islamic State, which diverted their attention from fighting Israel.

“This allowed us to divert significant funds and build an operating procedure that allowed us to fight on four fronts while allowing Israeli civilians to go about their lives,” the army chief said.

The retired lieutenant general defended his positions regarding the Gaza Strip, namely that Israel should not launch a full-scale campaign there despite regular attacks along the border and sporadic rocket fire.

A man stands inside a house that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on November 13, 2018 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Eisenkot specifically discussed his recommendation not to start a war in Gaza in November after some 500 rockets and mortar shells were launched at southern Israel by terror groups in the coastal enclave.

The attacks from Gaza — the largest ever in terms of the number of projectiles fired — came a day after an undercover Israeli military operation in the Strip was exposed. In the resulting firefight, an Israeli lieutenant colonel was killed, along with 16 Hamas members, according to the IDF.

That operation “was supposed to be a major contribution to our national security,” Eisenkot said. “The soldiers fought bravely and killed those that threatened them, and we succeeded in evacuating the troops.”

A bus set ablaze after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, at the Israel-Gaza border near the kibbutz of Kfar Aza, on November 12, 2018. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The day after the failed operation, an anti-tank guided missile was fired at a bus along the Gaza border that moments before had been full of soldiers. One servicemen still on the bus was seriously injured.

Throughout the course of the next two days, hundreds of rockets and mortar shells were fired at the south, killing a Palestinian man living in the city of Ashkelon and injuring several others, including some people seriously.

Yet the Israeli military response was restrained, focusing mainly on terrorist infrastructure rather than on terrorist fighters.

“The decision not to launch a campaign in response [to the rocket attacks] was the right thing to do in that context. The recommendation made by me and the defense establishment was accepted [by the security cabinet] unanimously,” Eisenkot said.

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