Analysts: Tackling tunnels is first step before IDF takes on Hezbollah missiles

Explaining Northern Shield op, Netanyahu says ‘only a small piece of the big picture’ of Israeli efforts to counter the Lebanese terror group has been revealed thus far

In this photo released by Hezbollah Central Military Media, Israeli military diggers work on the Lebanese-Israeli border next to a wall that was built by Israel facing the southern village of Kafr Kila, Lebanon on Dec. 4, 2018. (Hezbollah Military Media via AP)
In this photo released by Hezbollah Central Military Media, Israeli military diggers work on the Lebanese-Israeli border next to a wall that was built by Israel facing the southern village of Kafr Kila, Lebanon on Dec. 4, 2018. (Hezbollah Military Media via AP)

Israeli security analysts believe that Tuesday’s launch of an IDF operation to tackle Hezbollah attack tunnels, swiftly followed by the exposure of a first such tunnel found extending into Israel, is a precursor to a larger Israeli operation to remove the threat posed by precision missiles being developed by the Lebanese terror group together with its Iranian sponsors.

On Tuesday, the IDF said it uncovered the “first of what are 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.

Israel’s Channel 10 TV later said the IDF estimates that there are some 10 attack tunnels.

However, the channel noted that Israel’s military reaction to the tunnel discovery was subdued and forces did not enter Lebanon to destroy it, saying that this was largely due to an expectation that the IDF would have to launch a far greater operation in the near future to deal with Hezbollah’s efforts to add precision guidance to its arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets.

Channel 10 analysts said that it was important that the tunnels be destroyed before Israel launched a large-scale military operation.

This assessment was backed up by Amos Yadlin, the head of the Institute for National Security Studies and the former head of former chief of Israeli military intelligence.

“The MORE CRITICAL CHALLENGE, stopping the “Precision Project” is still ahead, with legitimacy issues and escalation risks at a totally different level,” Yadlin wrote on Twitter, adding that it was also an important message to Hezbollah.

“The tunnels’ exposure carries a message to Hizbullah, who based its operations on secrecy, covert action and surprise. It needs to consider that it is in fact, exposed and vulnerable to Israel’s Intel. Its safe and secret posts may prove as death traps to his terrorists,” he wrote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also suggested there was far more to come.

“Two weeks ago I said that in order to ensure the security of Israel we need a steady hand and patience. I added that much cannot be revealed,” he said during a televised address at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.

“Today, again, I want to say that what we will reveal to you now 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,” Netanyahu said.

Israel has repeatedly warned that Iran was trying to set up missile factories in Lebanon to upgrade Hezbollah’s capabilities and warned that it was a red line for Israel.

A satellite image released by the Israel Defense Forces showing three sites near Beirut’s international airport that the army says are being used by Hezbollah to convert regular missiles into precision-guided munitions, on September 27, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

In his speech, Netanyahu also said that Israeli efforts to destroy cross-border tunnels built by Hezbollah were “not an isolated operation, but a wide and ongoing operation” aimed at targeting a broader push by the Iran-backed terror group to capture parts of the Galilee from Israel.

“The aim of Hezbollah has been to dig tunnels into our territory. It is part of an effort with a breadth and depth that we have not seen before,” Netanyahu said

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 the operation to find and destroy cross-border attack tunnels the military says the terror group dug into Israeli territory.

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.

Hezbollah operatives were still working inside the cross-border tunnel when it was exposed on Tuesday morning, the IDF spokesperson said Tuesday evening, showing footage he said was filmed mere hours earlier inside the underground passage.

Netanyahu said that the tunnel, and others like it, were part of a wider effort to “inflict great damage” to Israel and Israeli citizens.

“Capturing parts of the Galilee by Hezbollah is a concrete threat,” he said. “It is also part of a regional and global terror effort led by Iran.”

Citing Israeli military action in Syria in recent years that he said has led to a 10 percent decrease in the number of Iranian troops operating in the war-torn country, Netanyahu said that Tuesday’s operation was part of efforts to also thwart Iranian terrorist groups operating in Lebanon.

“The operation will continue until the outcome is achieved, however long that may take,” Netanyahu said.

“I have a message for the people of Lebanon,” he added. “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 found Tuesday, he added, “was built under a home in a civilian neighborhood 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.”

In an apparent effort to preempt allegations that the decision to launch Northern Shield was connected to the recent calls by police to indict him, Netanyahu said the decision to take action was made “a few weeks ago.” He also specifically thanked “former defense minister Avigdor Liberman who was part of the preparations.” Liberman resigned last month in protest of Netanyahu’s refusal to sanction a major assault on Hamas in Gaza after that terror group fired some 500 rockets at Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), Defense Minister Avigdor (left) Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (right) seen during an emergency meeting at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, on July 20, 2018. (Ministry of Defense/Ariel Hermoni)

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, speaking directly after Netanyahu, said the military came to the security cabinet with the recommendation to start the operation “once the conditions were ripe,” approximately a month ago.

According to Eisenkot, the cabinet approved the operation on November 7.

He said the operation was expected to last several weeks and is being led by the head of the IDF Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick.

“This morning we initiated action to thwart Hezbollah’s intrusion into our territory, to improve our security reality in the north… to strike and to continue to strike Iranian entrenchment in the north,” Eisenkot said.

The army chief said Northern Shield was launched before the tunnels became operational and “became an immediate and direct threat to northern communities and army bases.”

This picture taken on December 4, 2018, from the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila shows a view of Israeli machinery operating behind the border wall in Israel. (Ali Dia/AFP)

Eisenkot said that in the wake of the 2014 Gaza war, in which the threat of Hamas tunnels was a key issue, the Israeli military “built a highly advanced operational, technological engineering and intelligence capability to neutralize attack tunnels, both in the north and in the south.”

The army chief said the heads of communities in northern Israel were informed of the operation ahead of time and lauded them for showing “responsibility” by not revealing that it was slated to take place.

He said that the IDF was “in possession of Hezbollah’s offensive tunneling plans” and called on Israelis to “feel safe, to continue their daily routines and to continue traveling to the north.”

Speaking before Netanyahu, IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said that Hezbollah operatives were working inside the tunnel exposed by the Israeli military on Tuesday up until its discovery, showing footage he said was filmed inside the underground passage on Tuesday morning.

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 — though Manelis indicated earlier in the day 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.

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