Lebanese PM: No need for an escalation

London, Berlin condemn Hezbollah tunnels, back Israeli border operation

Diplomats for European nations say Lebanese terror group showing ‘blatant disregard’ for UN resolutions in its ‘aggressive behavior’ along Israel’s northern frontier

British Minister of State for the Department for International Development Alistair Burt address a meeting of the United Nations Security Council during the UN General Assembly, September 21, 2017 at UN headquarters. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)
British Minister of State for the Department for International Development Alistair Burt address a meeting of the United Nations Security Council during the UN General Assembly, September 21, 2017 at UN headquarters. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

British and German diplomats on Wednesday backed Israel’s right to combat Hezbollah tunnels dug beneath its northern border and strongly condemned the Lebanese terror group for its actions.

Alistair Burt, British Minister of State for the Middle East, said Hezbollah actions were “a blatant disregard of UN resolutions, threatening Israel and Lebanon’s stability.”

Meanwhile German Ambassador to Israel Susanne Wasum-Rainer said her government “strongly condemns the aggressive behaviour of Hezbollah, as manifested in the tunnel system built in violation of Israel’s territorial integrity.”

The statements joined those of US National Security Adviser John Bolton who on Tuesday expressed “strong support” for Israel’s “efforts to defend its sovereignty.”

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.

The Israeli army on Tuesday launched Operation Northern Shield 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.

On Wednesday the military said it shared details about a tunnel which it uncovered the day before with UN peacekeepers and Lebanese officials, as Jerusalem pushed for fresh international sanctions against Hezbollah.

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.

File: Susanne Wasum-Rainer in 2011 at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands (AP Photo/Bas Czerwinski)

“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.

However, Lebanese Prime Minister Said Hariri said that his country was not seeking an escalation.

Lebanon does not want an escalation and is seeking to maintain calm with “all international and friendly parties concerned,” Hariri said in a statement from his office, without directly referring to the tunnels .

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 personnel were shown the Israeli side of the tunnel.

The Israeli military drills into the soil south of the Lebanese border in an effort to locate and destroy Hezbollah attack tunnels that it says entered Israeli territory, on December 5, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

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 “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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (R) in New York, September 27, 2018 (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

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 the newly launched operation.

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.

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 and agencies contributed to this report.

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