IDF combs north for possible attack tunnels
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IDF combs north for possible attack tunnels

With no known threat of Hezbollah operatives digging under the border, army says operation aimed to reassure residents

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border (illustrative photo credit: Flash90)
Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border (illustrative photo credit: Flash90)

The IDF began on Wednesday to drill in the soil around Israel’s northern border in search of attack tunnels that may have been constructed by Lebanese Hezbollah operatives in order to carry out deadly assaults against Israeli citizens and soldiers. The drilling operation was halted several hours later in light of a cross-border attack by Hezbollah on an Israeli patrol.

Defense officials stressed that the operation in the small village of Zarit was not prompted by information regarding a specific threat of tunnel digging, but was instead initiated in order to assure local residents that the border was secure, Israel Radio reported.

The IDF was employing heavy machinery for the digging task, according to the report, and no tunnels had yet to be found.

Last month, residents of Zarit said they intended to excavate in areas believed to conceal cross-border tunnels, and would then seek to coordinate with the Israel Defense Forces, the NRG website reported. Locals in the north raised alarms over the summer regarding the possibility that Hezbollah fighters were tunneling below the border to carry out attacks, after an extensive series of underground passages dug by Hamas were discovered under the Gaza border to the south.

Some 30 tunnels were demolished during the summer’s 50-day war between Israel and Hamas, and 11 soldiers were killed inside Israel by gunmen emerging from the tunnels.

The Zarit residents sent complaints in past months to the IDF, insisting that they heard continuous drilling and were “certain” Hezbollah tunnels exist.

The army, for its part, has repeatedly maintained that there are no known tunnels extending from Lebanese territory into Israel. On Tuesday, a top defense official, who spoke under condition of anonymity, reiterated the military’s stance, according to Ynet.

Later Wednesday, an Israeli army patrol came under fire in the northern Har Dov area along Israel’s border with Lebanon. Initial reports said a military vehicle was targeted by anti-tank missiles in an area of the border that doesn’t have a fence. At the same time, IDF positions in the area, as well as on nearby Mount Hermon, were hit with mortar shells. The attack came amid persistent threats of retaliation from Iran and Hezbollah over an alleged Israeli airstrike on the Syrian Golan Heights earlier this month that left Iranian general Mohammed Allahdadi dead, along with senior Hezbollah officer Jihad Mughniyeh and 10 others.

Lebanese Hezbollah supporters carry the coffin of Jihad Mughniyeh during his funeral in a southern Beirut suburb on January 19, 2015. (photo credit: Joseph Eid/AFP)
Lebanese Hezbollah supporters carry the coffin of Jihad Mughniyeh during his funeral in a southern Beirut suburb on January 19, 2015. (photo credit: Joseph Eid/AFP)

In September, a senior IDF official warned that while Hezbollah has no immediate plan to attack Israel, a minor security incident could erupt into a full-fledged war on Israel’s northern front during which the terror organization would likely try to capture swaths of the Galilee.

The official, however, added that, despite Hezbollah’s prowess in tunnel-digging, he was not aware of any attack tunnels extending into Israel’s territory.

“It’s likely Hezbollah has been engaged in this, but I don’t know of any tunnel in the area that is ready for attack. Hezbollah entered the underground world before Hamas even thought of it, and Hezbollah explained to Hamas how to prepare this sort of action,” he noted, adding that infiltrations into northern towns were possible without the use of tunnels.

IDF forces in northern Israel on January 19, 2015. (photo credit: Basal Awidat/Flash90)
IDF forces in northern Israel on January 19, 2015. (photo credit: Basal Awidat/Flash90)

Hezbollah has in the past managed a number of cross-border attacks on Israel, sometimes placing explosives next to army infrastructure. In 2006, the group killed two soldiers and nabbed their bodies, sparking a bloody, month-long war. The fighting resulted in the deaths of 43 Israeli civilians and 119 IDF soldiers, and over 1,700 dead on the Lebanese side, including between 600 to 800 Hezbollah combatants, according to IDF figures.

An armistice line, known as the Blue Line, between Lebanon and Israel was drawn up by the UN in 2000, after IDF troops withdrew, ending a 22-year Israeli presence in the country’s south.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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