InterviewA threat worse than Gaza's underworld

Expert: Hezbollah has built a vast tunnel network far more sophisticated than Hamas’s

Tunnel system in south Lebanon runs hundreds of kms, up to the border and even into Israel; launchers can fire precision-guided missiles from there, then disappear, says Tal Beeri

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

View inside a Hezbollah tunnel that crosses from Lebanon to Israel, on the border between Israel and Lebanon in northern Israel, on February 14, 2023. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
View inside a Hezbollah tunnel that crosses from Lebanon to Israel, on the border between Israel and Lebanon in northern Israel, on February 14, 2023. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Two weeks ago, the IDF spokesman revealed one of the biggest attack tunnels in the Gaza Strip — four kilometers long, wide enough for vehicles to drive through, and running from Jabaliya, north of Gaza City, up until some 400 meters from the Erez border crossing into Israel.

While the tunnel did not cross the border, it presumably could have enabled terrorists on motorcycles and other vehicles to drive underground from the Jabaliya area and exit close to the border before IDF surveillance soldiers or patrols could block them. The IDF did not specify whether this was the case when 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists poured into Israel on October 7, slaughtering 1,200 people and abducting 240.

The uncovering of this vast tunnel, of which there are several more in Gaza, has revived discussion of similar tunnels near, at and under the Lebanon border — especially amid the ongoing clashes there with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist army, the forced evacuation of tens of thousands of Israeli residents of the north, and the Israeli leadership’s repeated insistence that Hezbollah must be forced back from the border and deterred.

The Lebanon tunnel project was begun and developed long before the one in Gaza. Existing intelligence indicates a vast tunnel network in southern Lebanon, deep and multi-pronged.

At the Alma Research and Education Center, which focuses on the security challenges on Israel’s northern border, researchers have spent many years investigating Lebanon’s underworld. Tal Beeri, the director of Alma’s Research Department, who served for decades in IDF intelligence units, has exposed that subterranean network in material based on considerable open-source intelligence.

Several years ago, Beeri managed to track down on the internet a “map of polygons,” covering what he called the “Land of the Tunnels” in southern Lebanon. “The map is marked, by an unknown party, with polygons (circles) indicating 36 geographic regions, towns and villages,” he wrote in 2021 paper.

Hezbollah’s Map of Polygons (Alma Research and Education Center)

“In our assessment, these polygons mark Hezbollah’s staging centers as part of the ‘defense’ plan against an Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Each local staging center (‘defense’) possesses a network of local underground tunnels. Between all these centers, an infrastructure of regional tunnels was built, interconnected [with] them.”

Beeri assessed that the cumulative length of Hezbollah’s tunnel network in south Lebanon amounts to hundreds of kilometers.

In an interview, Beeri recalls that the research paper on Hezbollah’s “Land of the Tunnels” was published immediately after 2021’s Operation Guardian of the Walls — where the IDF had engaged in tackling Hamas’s underground “metro” in Gaza, an operation that in retrospect did not achieve its goal of destroying the tunnels in the enclave.

The paper also featured a map assessing the likely 45-kilometer route of one “attack tunnel” in south Lebanon.

The likely route of a 45 km Hezbollah tunnel in southern Lebanon (Alma Research and Education Center)

“A lot of people were quizzical because we relied on open sources,” says Beeri. “But we compiled and collected information from a series of sources and videos about the work on the tunnels, including a 2007 video in which Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah number two who was assassinated in February 2008, was seen inside the attack tunnel. We attached an original map that we found online, on which somebody had marked the route, and we did ‘reverse engineering.’ That’s how we put together what seemed to be the route of the 45-kilometer tunnel.”

Adds Beeri: “We found additional materials, including footage of pickup trucks inside a tunnel with various connecting branches. That particular video we decided not to publish initially, because we didn’t have definitive proof that it was filmed in a tunnel in Lebanon. We thought it was possible that somebody was deliberately trying to mislead us. Nonetheless, in the wake of several checks that we did, including looking at the vegetation, the kinds of vehicles and the route, we think it’s extremely likely that this is inside Lebanon.”

The Times of Israel: The army’s publicization in November of the Jebaliya-Erez tunnel highlighted the need to intensify your work?

Tal Beeri: Absolutely, because we see the work that Hamas has been doing. And if that’s what’s been going on with the digging and building of the tunnels in Gaza, well, in Lebanon, it’s more sophisticated.

We have identified several kinds of tunnels in Lebanon: First, what everybody calls attack tunnels, particularly large and long tunnels that lead from area to area. One can enter them in vehicles and even medium-sized trucks.

Along with them, there are tactical tunnels, which the IDF exposed and destroyed in Operation Northern Shield in January 2019. They are intended for people only to move around in, and in extreme circumstances, maybe a motorcycle. Tactical tunnels are close to villages, and they enable terrorists to fight from underground — to fire from tunnel shafts and duck back in, to rearm from weapons stores inside, to rest, and emerge again.

In our assessment, it could be that there are also “proximate tunnels.” These are similar to the attack tunnels that the IDF thwarted in 2019 but don’t cross the border. They enable access almost to the border, and from there to emerge and attack. We’re talking about activities such as those by the Radwan force that has been planning to invade the Galilee.

An additional kind of tunnel are explosive tunnels. They are dug for the sole purpose of placing explosives inside, with the devices to be detonated when the IDF maneuvers on the ground inside Lebanon.

North Korea’s role in Hezbollah’s tunnel project was researched until 2014. What do you know since then?

Digging tunnels in Lebanon was done from the start with the assistance of North Korea — as far back as the 1980s and especially toward the end of the 90s. There is evidence of this. North Korea has historic expertise in the digging of tunnels in mountainous and rocky areas.

After the second Lebanon War in 2006, the connection with North Korea was maintained, and aid was also received from Iran.

Eventually, Hezbollah got everything it needed from the Koreans. By 2014, they’d had 25 years of interaction, in the course of which Hezbollah received knowledge and technology to the point where it was able to dig and build the tunnels by itself.

Subsequently, it set up civilian companies, Shiite-owned, that worked ostensibly on civilian infrastructure in the Baalbek region. These projects were overseen by a company called Jihad Construction, that presented itself as ostensibly carrying out agricultural projects and building reconstruction for the benefit of the Shiite community, but actually took on the building of the tunnels.

The Mustafa Commercial and Contracting Company at work on a tunnel in southern Lebanon (Alma Research and Education Center)

In the course of the work, additional “civilian” companies were established. One of them, the Mustafa Commercial and Contracting Company, even interacted with the United Nations Development Program, as a civil construction contractor.

How do Hezbollah’s precision-guided missiles, capable of hitting anywhere in Israel, fit into the tunneling picture?

It’s not complicated from their point of view. Fateh 110 [surface-to-surface ballistic] missiles are carried on trucks. The subterranean infrastructure enables a truck to transit to the place where the missile is to be fired. In theory, at the launch site, a platform can be constructed, or a slope leading up from the tunnel. The truck exits the tunnel, fires and goes back down.

Simulation of a missile launch from a tunnel exntrance in southern Lebanon (Alma Research and Education Center)

When one flies over the site, all one can see is the mountain. It’s very hard to find the launch site. They are able to carry out a fast, mobile launch of missiles.

This article was translated and edited from the original Hebrew on our sister site Zman Yisrael. 

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