'Tunnels are done, but not the goal to grab part of Galilee'

IDF chief: Hezbollah had grandiose attack plan to ‘shake Israel’

Outgoing Eisenkot says terror group believed tunnel assault would be ‘something Israel hasn’t experienced since founding’; dismisses idea that ‘a little more force will end terror’

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the defense ministry's headquarters in Tel Aviv, on December 4, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the defense ministry's headquarters in Tel Aviv, on December 4, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Israel’s top general said Lebanese terror group Hezbollah planned to use its array of underground attack tunnels to carry out a surprise invasion of Israel that would “throw Israel off balance and cause an earthquake in Israeli society.”

Gadi Eisenkot’s comments came a month after the IDF launched an ongoing operation to locate and destroy the cross-border attack tunnels dug from Lebanon.

In an interview aired just days before he is set to leave his post on January 15, Eisenkot told Hadashot TV news that Hezbollah “had grandiose notions. They were looking many years ahead, to a war or wide escalation, where they [believed they] would have a surprise, an ace in their deck.”

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, he said, “now knows that Israel has known for years about his most secret plan: to carry out a secret, surprise attack on Israel in the future” via the tunnels.

Eisenkot once quipped that if Nasrallah “knew what we know about him, he’d be the most worried man in the Middle East.” On Thursday he said this was even more accurate: “I know much more today.”

Excerpts of Eisenkot’s comments aired on Thursday ahead of the full broadcast on Saturday evening.

Hezbollah, the outgoing army chief said, “had built what they thought was a fantastic plan, with several tunnels [entering Israel under the border] from the Metulla area to the sea, and their intention was to launch an attack that would begin with a surprise attack from underground — sending 1,000 to 1,500 fighters into our side.”

To cover the invasion, “they planned a massive artillery bombardment of IDF bases. [They aimed to] gain control of a piece of Israeli territory and hold it for weeks,” he said.

Hezbollah’s goal, he said, was to demonstrate Israeli frailty.

“They said, this is something Israel has never experienced since its founding, and it will be an achievement that will disrupt the State of Israel’s ability to attack inside Lebanon, throw Israel off balance, and cause an earthquake in Israeli society,” he said.

In excerpts from a second interview, with the Kan public broadcaster, Eisenkot said that Israel was “not currently striking in Lebanon openly, but [is] working through many clandestine channels that contribute to Israel’s security without causing an escalation.”

Channel 10 News reported that Eisenkot went down into one of the tunnels last weekend. When he emerged, he told an interviewer, “I didn’t realize how big it was… We’ve not seen anything like this in the past.”

The Hezbollah tunnel “project is over,” he said, “but not their goal to capture parts of the Galilee.”

On the subject of the Gaza Strip, and criticism he and government officials — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — have faced for the handling of Hamas and the terror threat posed by the restive Palestinian enclave, Eisenkot told Kan: “The Gaza problem is not only a military problem, it is a much more complex problem that demands a multi-pronged approach.

“Whoever says a little bit more force, checkpoints and strikes will bring an end to terror, doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

He also said he was amused by critics who claimed he was too soft on Hamas. “Those who know me and follow my service [know that] it has usually been characterized by initiative, offensive [tactics], subterfuge and use of force. It makes me laugh when they say I’m part of the leadership of Peace Now,” he said, referring to the dovish peace lobby group.

Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the conclusion of Operation Northern Shield as he toured the northern border with lawmakers in late December — just after kicking off a campaign for re-election in which national security is expected to be a central issue.

The IDF launched Northern Shield in early December to destroy Hezbollah’s tunnels that crossed into Israeli territory.

“This operation is almost entirely behind us,” Netanyahu said in a statement released by his office on December 25. “There is exceptional work being carried out here that has disarmed the Hezbollah tunnels,” he said. “It [Hezbollah] invested heavily in it and we destroyed it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd-R) and other members of the security cabinet receive a briefing from Maj. Gen. Yoel Strik (L), head of the IDF’s Northern Command, during a tour of the northern border on December 25, 2018. (Haim Tzach/GPO)

Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, was accompanied by other security cabinet members. They received a briefing on the security situation from Eisenkot and the head of Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strik.

Eisenkot, too, said the operation was nearing completion late last month. “Most of the passages that enter Israel have been found, and I believe that we will complete this mission in the near future,” he said.

But a senior officer told journalists on a visit to the northern border that the army viewed the operation as an open-ended effort.

“We are not restricted by time. It can take days, weeks, months. We will find all of them,” the officer said, referring to Hezbollah’s tunnels.

So far, the Israeli military has uncovered five tunnels. After studying them, the IDF began the process of destroying the passages on December 20.

Israeli soldiers stand around the opening of a hole that leads to a tunnel that the army says was dug by the Hezbollah terror group across the Israel-Lebanon border, near Metulla, on December 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

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

The UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL confirmed in mid-December that at least two of the tunnels crossed into Israel and were therefore a violation of the UN resolution that ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War, but did not confirm Israel’s allegations they were dug by Hezbollah. United Nations peacekeepers have stepped up patrols since the launch of the operation to ensure the frontier remains calm.

UN Resolution 1701 requires all armed groups besides the Lebanese military to remain north of the country’s Litani River. Despite the stipulations of the resolution, Hezbollah maintains vast forces, including an arsenal of rockets and missiles estimated at over 130,000 projectiles, in the country’s south.

In his end-of-term interview, Eisenkot also defended his former boss, ex-chief of staff Benny Gantz, who has faced criticism of his handling of the 2014 war with Hamas since announcing last month he would run in the April 2019 elections.

Asked if the criticism of Gantz was politically motivated, Eisenkot replied, “I was his deputy during [Operation] Protective Edge, and his leadership was excellent. He was always there, every second. He spent a great deal of time with the troops [in the field]; he was at the front.”

He also defended Netanyahu, saying the prime minister kept his defense decisions separate from his political considerations.

And, according to Hadashot, Eisenkot slammed former IDF soldier Elor Azaria, who became a cause celebre on the right after he killed an immobilized Palestinian assailant in Hebron in March 2016 and was subsequently arrested and tried for the shooting. He said Azaria was “not a hero, but an anti-hero.”

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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