The Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday issued a stern warning to members of the Hezbollah terror group and the Lebanese army to stay away from any tunnels dug under the Lebanese border and into Israel as the IDF launched a major operation to destroy the passageways.
In a message directed at elements of Hezbollah and the Lebanese army, the IDF said it “advises them to stay away from any offensive [tunnel] dug from Lebanese territory into Israeli territory.”
The message was posted by Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee, the IDF spokesman for Arabic media.
“You have been warned,” the tweet cautioned.
IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus announced earlier the launch of Operation Northern Shield, saying “a number of tunnels” have penetrated Israeli territory and forces were working on the Israeli side of the frontier to destroy them.
The army said the operation was taking place in Israeli territory, though spokesman Ronen Manelis, asked by Army Radio whether forces planned on crossing the border fence with Lebanon, said the campaign would expand in the coming days.
There was no immediate response to the tunnel operation by Lebanon or Hezbollah, and calm appeared to be maintained on both sides of the border.
Israeli security chiefs were holding security assessments throughout the day in order to predict Iran-backed Hezbollah’s reaction to the IDF operation.
Additional troops were deployed to northern Israel as a precaution against potential attacks by Hezbollah, but no reservists were called up.
Israel has long warned that Hezbollah planned to conduct cross-border raids in any future conflict, with the specific goal of attacking and conquering a civilian town near the border. Northern residents have raised fears in recent years of attack tunnels being dug under the border, spurring the IDF to launch a task force to investigate the concerns in 2014.
Conricus said the tunnels “are not yet operationally ready” and therefore did not pose an “immediate threat.”
The spokesperson said he could not elaborate on the number of tunnels or how deeply they penetrated into Israel, but said such information may be provided in the future.
A government official said the operation would likely take weeks.
It was not immediately clear why the army launched the operation now, but it came as tensions on Israel’s northern border have ramped up in recent days and hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Brussels for a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss Iran and security challenges on Israel’s northern border, likely referring to Hezbollah.
The IDF operation began in the predawn hours of Tuesday morning. The military declared the area around the community of Metulla a closed military zone, but gave no other special instructions to Israeli civilians in the area.
Attack tunnels have long been rumored to have been dug from southern Lebanon into Israeli territory by the Iran-backed terror group, but Israeli defense officials repeatedly either denied their existence or refused to discuss the matter.
The army spokesperson pointed the finger at Iran for providing the funding and support for Hezbollah’s tunnel program.
According to the IDF, the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group also provided Hezbollah with technical assistance, based on its extensive experience digging attack tunnels from the Strip into southern Israel.
Conricus also accused the Lebanese government of failing to prevent Hezbollah from establishing a military presence in southern Lebanon, despite this being a violation of United Nations Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War.