The Hezbollah terror group accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of launching a military operation along the Lebanese border in order to distract from his domestic woes, as officials on both sides of the fence indicated they would keep a lid on tensions but were preparing for the possibility of escalating hostilities.
The Lebanese Armed Forces went on high alert in southern Lebanon after the Israel army launched an operation Tuesday to find and destroy tunnels it said cross under the frontier and into its territory, a security official told the Lebanese al-Nahar news outlet Tuesday.
A Lebanese military official told The Associated Press that Lebanese troops and military intelligence agents, along with UN peacekeepers deployed in southern Lebanon, were observing the border. On its Twitter account the Lebanese army said its forces were “closely” following developments and were “totally prepared to confront any sudden occurrence.”
UN peacekeepers said they increased patrols on the Lebanese-Israeli border. “The overall situation in UNIFIL’s area of operation remains calm,” Joumana Sayegh, a spokeswoman for the UN mission which monitors the border region, said in a statement.
“UNIFIL is working with all interlocutors in order to maintain the overall stability,” she said.
Al-Nahar quoted Hezbollah propaganda outfit War Media as saying that Lebanese border villages were not preparing for a wider outbreak of hostilities.
“The Lebanese villages across from the border are keeping a normal situation, with the Lebanese army mobilizing, and members of UNIFIL to observe and follow the work on the other side of the border,” the report said.
The outlet reported that the IDF was digging in the ground opposite the village of Kafr Kila and other locations in the area.
The IDF later released a photograph and map of what it said was a tunnel it had uncovered leading from Kafr Kila into Israel.
A Hezbollah official told al-Nahar that Netanyahu was “in crisis” and had manufactured the confrontation in order to distract from his legal and political troubles.
“Netanyahu is in a jam because of [his government’s] crisis and is tilting at windmills,” the unnamed official told the Lebanese outlet, referencing the literary character Don Quixote.
Earlier this week Israel Police recommended indicting Netanyahu for corruption including bribery and breach of trust. The development came at a time when Netanyahu’s government had been left with a narrow edge of 61 Knesset seats against 59 in the opposition following the resignation last month of former defense minister Avigdor Liberman and the withdrawal of his Yisrael Beynetnu party from the coalition. Earlier this year, police recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in two other corruption cases.
Malene Jensen, a spokeswoman for the UN force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL, said the situation in the peacekeepers’ “area of operation remains calm” and that they were in touch with all relevant parties to make sure calm and stability was maintained.
Israel has been using earthmovers and other large machinery to build a massive wall along its northern border, saying the barrier is needed to protect civilians from Hezbollah attacks. While the construction has prompted complaints from the Lebanese army, Hezbollah has not responded, an indication it could remain restrained amid the new operation.
A Hezbollah-affiliated news outlet released a number of photographs of Israeli troops and engineering vehicles along the border, apparently taking part in the newly launched operation to destroy the Lebanese terror group’s cross-border attack tunnels.
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The photographs appear to have been taken from watchtowers along the Israeli-Lebanese border, which are meant to be used solely by the Lebanese Armed Forces.
The Israeli military has long accused the Lebanese army of cooperating with the powerful Hezbollah terrorist group.
Hezbollah has yet to release an official public response to the Israeli effort.
IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus announced earlier Tuesday 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. An IDF spokesman, questioned by Army Radio about whether forces planned on crossing the border fence with Lebanon, responded by saying only that the campaign would expand in the coming days.
Israeli security chiefs were holding security assessments throughout the day in order to deal with any possible cross-border flareup, but resident in towns along the northern border were advised to maintain their normal routines.
Additional troops were deployed to northern Israel as a precaution against potential attacks by Hezbollah, but no reservists were called up. A government official said the operation would likely take weeks.
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. The last major conflict between Israel and Hezbollah was the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Army spokesperson Conricus pointed the finger at Iran for providing the funding and support for Hezbollah’s tunnel program.