The Israeli military on Wednesday said it had become aware of a recently uncovered cross-border tunnel from Lebanon thanks to a number of suspicious incidents in the area in recent years.
The tunnel near the Lebanese village of Ramyeh, the fourth uncovered so far in the army’s operation to unearth and destroy Hezbollah attack tunnels, had been monitored for years before the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Northern Shield this month.
The IDF noted that several factors had led it to suspect that a tunnel was being dug from a forested area near Ramyeh: the burning of a single tree in May 2016, the appearance of a new rock formation at the site, and the creation of new and unnatural paths in the area.
The army said the tunnel, which it uncovered over the weekend, crossed a few meters into Israeli territory but was not yet operational.
The village is opposite the Israeli town of Zarit, where residents in the past complained of hearing digging sounds, prompting an IDF investigation in 2014. But the military said that probe had not had results, and the tunnel was found unrelated to locals’ reports. There were no details on when Hezbollah began building the tunnel.
The army said IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot toured the area with other top military commanders Wednesday to survey the digging operation.
“The effort to expose and neutralize terror tunnels will continue as needed,” the military said in a statement.
The new details on the tunnel were released ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on the tunnel network planned for Wednesday and as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the passages constituted “an act of war,” pointing an accusatory finger at Lebanon.
The aim of Hezbollah was to “penetrate our territory, kidnap our people including civilians, murder civilians, and conquer the northern part of the Galilee. This is not merely an act of aggression, it’s an act of war,” said Netanyahu, who is also defense minister.
The IDF launched Operation Northern Shield earlier this month to locate and destroy Hezbollah tunnels spanning the border. The army 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.
Operation Northern Shield has raised tensions of a possible fresh conflict on the volatile border, which has seen two wars in recent decades, though Lebanon has downplayed chances of war so long as Israeli troops do not cross the border. United Nation peacekeepers have also stepped up patrols to ensure the frontier remains calm.
The army has also said it is aware of the existence of other tunnels, but has yet to fully expose them.
The specific number of tunnels that Israel believes were dug from Lebanon, as well as other information about the operation, cannot be published by order of the military censor.
The IDF launched its tunnel-busting operation on December 4, confirming long-held suspicions that the Lebanese-based Hezbollah had indeed dug tunnels into northern Israel, as residents of the area had been claiming for years.
Operation Northern Shield is taking place close to Lebanese territory, sometimes on the north side of the border wall, albeit still inside Israeli territory.
An IDF incursion into Lebanon could spark a major confrontation with Hezbollah, which bills itself as a defender of Lebanon against Israeli aggression.
Israeli officials have indicated that the IDF may operate within Lebanese territory, if necessary, to destroy the tunnels. Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, said Tuesday that the United States assured him that Israel has “no aggressive intentions” with its Operation Northern Shield.
Israel maintains that the tunnels represent a “serious violation of Resolution 1701 and the State of Israel’s sovereignty.” UN Resolution 1701 ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War and required all armed groups besides the Lebanese military to remain north of the country’s Litani River.
The UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL on Monday said at least two of the tunnels crossed into Israel and were therefore a violation of Resolution 1701, but did not confirm Israel’s allegations they were dug by Hezbollah.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.