Israel reportedly asking US to lean on Lebanon over Hezbollah tunnels

Israel reportedly asking US to lean on Lebanon over Hezbollah tunnels

Lebanese report claims Jerusalem wants Washington to threaten aid cut if Lebanese army does not help find and destroy attack tunnels dug under border

Lebanese soldiers monitor the border with Israel near the southern Lebanese village of Meiss el-Jabal on December 16, 2018. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)
Lebanese soldiers monitor the border with Israel near the southern Lebanese village of Meiss el-Jabal on December 16, 2018. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

Israel has reportedly asked the US to push the Lebanese government into taking action against attack tunnels dug by the Hezbollah terror group under the border between the two countries.

Jerusalem wants the Lebanese Armed Forces to work with international UN peacekeepers in locating and destroying the sections of cross-border tunnels that lie inside Lebanese territory, the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar daily reported Tuesday citing unnamed Western diplomatic sources.

The IDF launched Operation Northern Shield on December 4 in an effort to find attack tunnels dug into Israel from southern Lebanon by the Hezbollah terror group. So far, the Israeli military has said it’s uncovered four such tunnels and believes there are more.

The United Nations peacekeeping force UNIFIL on Monday confirmed the existence of four tunnels and said they violate a UN resolution that ended a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

According to al-Akhbar, Israel wants the US to threaten a halt in military aid to galvanize the LAF into action, since UNIFIL maintains the tunnels are “beyond its mandate” and that it is up to Lebanese authorities to deal with the issue.

The US already rejected an Israeli request to levy sanctions on Lebanon over its backing of Hezbollah, which sits in the Lebanese government, the Haaretz daily reported last week. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly cited the US’s strategic ties with Lebanon and agreed instead to increase measures against the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist group.

On Monday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri told UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col that Beirut remained committed to upholding UN Resolution 1701 and the Lebanese army would “conduct patrols to deal with any flaw in the implementation of Resolution 1701 from the Lebanese side,” official Lebanese state media outlet National News Agency reported.

According to al-Akhbar, Lebanon is refusing to discuss letting international forces intervene in dealing with the tunnels, and UNIFIL is skittish about taking any action that could create tensions with those living in southern villages along the border, or with Hezbollah itself.

The Beirut government has also been told by Russia to keep the peace along the border following a visit earlier this month to Moscow by senior IDF officers who presented the Russians with evidence of the Hezbollah tunnels, Channel 10 television reported Monday.

Heavy machinery work on the border between Israel and Lebanon near Metulla, northern Israel, on December 6, 2018. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

On Monday UNIFIL declared the tunnels a violation of the UN resolution that ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War, saying it has confirmed that at least two tunnels crossed into Israel.

It was the first such pronouncement about the tunnels from the peacekeeping group, formally known as the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.

In a statement, UNIFIL confirmed the existence of the four tunnels that Israel announced it had discovered along the border. The peacekeeping force said it ordered an independent investigations of the passages, which has so far found that at least two of the four penetrated into Israeli territory

“These constitute violations of UN Security Council Resolution 1701,” the statement said.

UN Resolution 1701 called for all armed groups in Lebanon besides the country’s military to remain north of the Litani River.

UNIFIL’s announcement came hours after Israeli and Lebanese troops verbally sparred along the border with guns drawn over the exact location of the border, after Israel placed concertina wire along the Blue Line as part of the ongoing tunnel-busting operation.

UN peacekeepers were at the scene, working to prevent conflict between the two sides.

Israel has for years claimed that Hezbollah has been violating Resolution 1701 by conducting military activities along the border. UNIFIL has largely rebuffed these allegations, and its announcement on Monday represented one of the few cases in which it has confirmed a violation of the UN resolution.

According to the IDF, Operation Northern Shield is taking place close to Lebanese territory, sometimes on the north side of the border wall, albeit still inside Israeli territory.

The operation has raised prospects of a possible fresh conflict on the volatile border, though Lebanon has downplayed chances of war so long as Israeli troops do not cross the border. UN peacekeepers have also stepped up patrols to ensure the frontier remains calm.

An IDF incursion into Lebanon could spark a major confrontation with Hezbollah, which bills itself as a defender of Lebanon against Israeli aggression.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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