Lebanon’s parliament speaker said Wednesday Israel had presented no evidence, during a tripartite meeting with UN peacekeepers, to prove its claims that a network of attack tunnels has been dug by Hezbollah under the countries’ shared borders.
Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally, said Israel offered no “coordinates or information” about the tunnels during the regular weekly meeting, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency.
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeeping mission meanwhile said Wednesday it will send a team to Israel to “ascertain facts,” a day after Israel launched an open-ended operation to find and destroy what it said were several cross-border tunnels planned for use by Hezbollah to attack the country and perhaps launch a full-scale war. Israel said it found the first such tunnel later Tuesday.
The peacekeeping team called for full access to all locations along the border.
Israel’s Hadashot TV news reported that several UNIFIL personnel were shown the Israeli side of the tunnel on Wednesday.
The Israeli military refused to comment on what details were shared at the meeting.
According to the IDF, the tunnel discovered Tuesday originated in the Lebanese village of Kafr Kila, near the Israeli border, and is approximately 200 meters (650 feet) long. It was dug some 25 meters (80 feet) below ground and is approximately two meters (six feet) high by two meters (six feet) wide, which would easily make it large enough for heavily armed infantry to pass through it.
The Hezbollah tunnels were to be used by the Iran-backed terror group for a surprise attack to kick off a future war, a senior IDF officer said Wednesday. The army believes the tunnel uncovered Tuesday east of the Lebanese village of Kafr Kila was meant to let in Hezbollah fighters who would cut off the Israeli town of Metulla, which lies directly along the border with Lebanon, said the senior officer in the military’s Northern Command, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The idea was to cut off Metulla from the south, including by blocking the main entry road, Route 90.
The IDF reportedly believes there are at least five cross-border tunnels. Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said Tuesday that the army “is in possession of” Hezbollah’s tunnel plan. 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.
Wednesday’s tripartite meeting was held at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing near the Lebanese town of Naqoura where UNIFIL has its headquarters.
UNIFIL hosts regular face-face talks between Israeli and Lebanese military officials.
Berri earlier questioned the authenticity of the IDF’s claims about attack tunnels leading into Israeli territory, according to a Lebanese report.
“The Israeli tale about the existence of a tunnel in Kafr Kila is questionable,” Berri said according to a report from the Lebanese al-Joumhouria daily newspaper. “Lebanon asks to be given the coordinates that specify the location of this tunnel and the validity of the Israeli claims about its existence.”
“In any case, if Israel wants to dig in the territories it occupies, it can do what it wants and dig as much as it wants. If it wants to expand by digging into Lebanese territory, that is another matter,” he added.
Hezbollah has remained silent about the tunnels.
US ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Holzhall Richard telephoned Berri to speak about the border situation and maintained Washington’s official stance in backing the Israeli operation, the newspaper said.
The IDF said the tunnel discovered Tuesday, 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 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.
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.
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.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.