The Israeli army said it shared details about tunnels it says are being dug under its northern border with UN peacekeepers and Lebanese officials Wednesday, as Jerusalem pushed for fresh international sanctions against the Hezbollah terror group.
Israel says the tunnels, one of which has already been uncovered, are being dug from Lebanon by Hezbollah for use in attacks against the Jewish state.
At a regularly scheduled meeting with peacekeepers and representatives from the Lebanese Armed Forces, Israeli officers “presented the uncovered Hezbollah attack tunnel that had been dug from Lebanon to Israel,” a statement from the Israeli military said, without providing details.
“The IDF expressed its protest to the serious violation of Israeli territory and UN Resolution 1701,” the statement said referring to the 2006 UN Security Council resolution calling for Hezbollah to withdraw from southern Lebanon following the Second Lebanon War, the last major conflict between the IDF and the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group.
The statement came after Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, said earlier that the Israeli army offered no “coordinates or information” about the tunnels during the talks, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency.
Berri and others in Lebanon have questioned the authenticity of the IDF’s claims about attack tunnels leading into Israeli territory, while Hezbollah has remained silent.
Ali Bazzi, a lawmaker from Berri’s parliamentary bloc, said Israel had no evidence to its claims, calling them a “distraction” and an attempt by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “evade” possible new indictment at home for corruption charges.
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) said Wednesday it will send a team to Israel to “ascertain facts” and called for full access to all locations along the border. According to Israel’s Hadashot news, some UNIFIL personal were shown the Israeli side of the tunnel.
“I emphasize the critical role of our liaison and coordination mechanisms in mitigating tensions through continuous communication, at the heart of which is the Tripartite forum,” said head of UNIFIL mission Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col.
He appealed to both sides in using the mechanisms to “avoid misunderstandings and ensure that security and stability” along the border is maintained and reinforced.
Speaking to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres by phone, Netanyahu Wednesday urged international condemnation of Hezbollah and more sanctions against the Iran-backed terror group, calling it a “flagrant violation of Israeli sovereignty” and “an additional part of Iran’s aggression in the region.”
Netanyahu’s office said he updated the UN chief on Operation Northern Shield, which was launched Tuesday to find and destroy what Israel says are cross-border tunnels planned for use by Hezbollah to attack the country and perhaps launch a full-scale war.
Netanyahu “said that he expects the UN to strongly condemn the violation of Israel’s sovereignty,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office read. “The prime minister also told the UN secretary-general that the international community must join in the demand to impose increased sanctions on Hezbollah in the wake of the events.”
There was no comment from Guterres’s office
Israel has long been critical of what it describes as UNIFIL’s failure to rein in the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group, which the IDF says maintains a large arsenal in the area despite Resolution 1701.
The US has already imposed some sanctions on Hezbollah and its affiliates. Other Western nations have made moves to impose sanctions and restrictions against the organization, which is part of the Lebanese government, though most measures differentiate between the group’s political and armed wings.
So far, only the US administration has expressed unequivocal support for Operation Northern Shield. Russia on Wednesday expressed tacit support on Wednesday for the efforts to expose Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels, while calling on both sides to show restraint lest the volatile situation on the Lebanese border escalate.
Russia does not consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
According to the IDF, the tunnel found Tuesday originated in the Lebanese village of Kafr Kila, near the Israeli border, and was approximately 200 meters (650 feet) long. It was dug some 25 meters (80 feet) below ground and was approximately two meters (six feet) tall by two meters (six feet) wide, which would easily make it large enough for heavily armed infantry to pass through it.
The IDF said the tunnel, which extended some 40 meters into Israel, was the “first of what are sure to be many” attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah across the border discovered as part of a newly launched operation, known as Northern Shield.
In addition to images from inside the tunnel the IDF also provided footage, taken by an army robot which surprised two Hezbollah operatives who were inside the passage at the time.
IDF spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said Tuesday the tunnel originated under an ostensibly civilian building, meters away from a position controlled by UNIFIL, which is meant to ensure that armed groups other than the Lebanese military stay away from the border zone under UN Resolution 1701.
Lebanese TV Wednesday aired footage of a chicken coop that it said was the building where the tunnel allegedly originated.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkott said Tuesday that the army “is in possession of” Hezbollah’s tunnel plan and the army reportedly believes there are at least five cross-border tunnels dug by Hezbollah.
Hadashot TV said Wednesday that the IDF tackled the tunnel heading to Metulla first, because it was being dug toward a residential area, while other tunnels are heading to army positions.
The military operation is expected to last several weeks and is being led by the head of the IDF Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, army officials have said. The army said the Hezbollah tunnels are not yet operational and do not present an immediate threat to Israelis.
Judah Ari Gross and Raphel Ahren contributed to this report.