Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Hezbollah terror group, on Saturday dismissed Israel’s operation to uncover and destroy cross-border attack tunnels as indicative of an intelligence failure, and said the group’s plans for an invasion of the Galilee remained intact.
Breaking months of silence, and speaking for the first time since Israel launched Operation Northern Shield in early December to uncover and destroy the tunnels dug under its border, Nasrallah claimed during an interview with the pro-Hezbollah al-Mayadeen TV that “some of the tunnels are from before Resolution 1701 and the Second Lebanon War.”
UN Resolution 1701 ended the 2006 conflict and called for all armed groups in Lebanon besides the country’s military to remain north of the Litani River. Israel has for years claimed that Hezbollah has been violating the resolution by conducting military activities along the border.
“The Israelis discovered a number of tunnels after many years, and it’s not a surprise. The surprise is that these tunnels, they took some time to find,” Nasrallah said on the al-Mayadeen channel.
“One of the tunnels discovered in recent weeks is 13 or 14 years old,” said a smiling Nasrallah. The Israeli operation brought to light the “failure” of the country’s intelligence services, he added.
Nasrallah’s claim on when work began on some of the tunnels appeared to line up with a Channel 13 report earlier this month. Israel has said it was aware of Hezbollah’s tunnel operations for several years.
He went on to claim that the tunnels were hardly central to Hezbollah’s attack plan in a future war, and that Israeli leaders had inflated their importance “to leave the [army] with a significant achievement” to boast of.
He confirmed Israeli leaders’ accusations that “Part of our plan for the next war is to enter the Galilee, a part of our plan we are capable of, God willing. The important thing is that we have this capability and we have had it for years.”
But, he claimed, “The uncovering of the tunnels does not affect by 10 percent our plans to take over the Galilee. If we decide to do it — even if they’ve destroyed the tunnels — can’t we rebuild them?” He also suggested there may be attack tunnels on the Israeli-Lebanese border which Israel has not yet discovered.
“To enter the Galilee, you do not need tunnels,” he said. “Yes, tunnels can be a helping factor in entering the Galilee, in a limited and partial manner. But an operation of that degree, if it were decided for it to happen one day, would require all of the borders, valleys, hills.”
He added that “In any war that happens, all of occupied Palestine will be a war and battlefield.”
Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah, which initiated the 2006 war with a border attack, would only enact such a plan in response to an Israeli attack and would not initiate it of its own accord.
“If the Israeli enemy bombarded targets in the Lebanese lands, undertook a security operation in Lebanese land, carried out an assassination in Lebanese land… [or] killed anyone from Hezbollah in Syria…, we consider that an assault and we will respond.” he said.
“We have the ability and the plans despite all the obstacles Israel tries to create,” he asserted. He further claimed that his organization possesses “enough missiles to achieve our goals in any future war.”
Israel has said Hezbollah possesses a small number of precision-guided missiles, and is seeking thousands for use in a future war, a threat the Jewish state is determined to prevent.
Nasrallah claimed it was in the Israeli people’s interest to “tell [Prime Minister] Netanyahu to let Hezbollah have precision missiles. It’s better because if the day comes that we want to respond to Tel Aviv, if I have a precision missile, I will hit a military site. But if I don’t have precision missile, I will want to hit a military site, but I will be off by 500 or 1000 meters. Where will it land? On people… The people’s interest is that we have precision missiles.”
Asked if this comment was a joke or a threat, he responded that “it is whatever you want it to be.”
Reacting to the interview, the Arabic spokesman for Israel’s military wrote on Twitter that Nasrallah is “isolated on all sides.”
“Lebanese citizens know you aren’t defending Lebanon, but destroying Lebanon,” Avichay Adraee tweeted.
In farewell interviews earlier this month, Israel’s outgoing chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot said Hezbollah had planned to use its array of underground attack tunnels to carry out a surprise invasion of Israel that would “throw Israel off balance and cause an earthquake in Israeli society.” He told Hadashot TV news that Hezbollah “had grandiose notions. They were looking many years ahead, to a war or wide escalation, where they [believed they] would have a surprise, an ace in their deck.”
Hezbollah, the outgoing army chief said, “had built what they thought was a fantastic plan, with several tunnels [entering Israel under the border] from the Metulla area to the sea, and their intention was to launch an attack that would begin with a surprise attack from underground — sending 1,000 to 1,500 fighters into our side.” To cover the invasion, “they planned a massive artillery bombardment of IDF bases. [They aimed to] gain control of a piece of Israeli territory and hold it for weeks,” he said.
Now, said Eisenkot, the Hezbollah tunnel “project is over… but not their goal to capture parts of the Galilee.”
Saturday’s interview with Nasrallah was an extraordinarily long one, lasting over three hours.
Despite his bluster, the terror leader would not officially confirm that the cross border tunnels had actually been dug by Hezbollah.
“Israel is claiming that Hezbollah dug them. I don’t have to say that I or Hezbollah dug the tunnels, because we always prefer to keep ambiguity on defense. We have no reason to work for free for Israel,” he said. He added: “I won’t confirm or deny if all of the tunnels have been uncovered.”
Nasrallah said he had refrained up to this point from commenting on the IDF’s operation because he “did not wish to assist Netanyahu and [former IDF chief of staff Gadi] Eisenkot in their media campaign.”
He also insisted that Operation Northern Shield “has not ended, despite the Israelis having announced its completion. Digging is still going on.”
The IDF announced the end of Operation Northern Shield last week.
Nasrallah also suggested that Israeli citizens should question the information they were being given on the tunnels, on the basis that northern residents’ concerns about the presence of attack tunnels had been dismissed for years.
“Moshe Ya’alon confirmed during Operation Northern Shield that there were tunnels,” he said, presumably referring to the former defense minister’s admission that officials had lied about the existence of the tunnels. “My question to the settlers in the north: Do you think Netanyahu, Eisenkot, and the new chief of staff are lying to you now or telling the truth?”
Nasrallah had not made a public appearance in months, leading to unconfirmed reports he was in critical condition following a heart attack brought on by cancer. He dismissed those rumors.
“It’s amusing to hear reports of my death. I’m not obligated to [say] anything when there are no special incidents,” he stated.
“I have recently been asked a lot about my health. I affirm everything that has been said is a lie that has no basis in the truth. My brain, heart, body, and before all else my soul and mind, are well. I am not suffering any health issue.”
An official from Iran, Hezbollah’s main backer, previously dismissed the rumors as a “Zionist lie.”
Nasrallah, 58, took over the Iran-backed Hezbollah group after its previous leader was killed in a 1992 targeted assassination by Israeli helicopters on his convoy.
As a precaution against a repeat of the incident, Nasrallah’s movements are shrouded in mystery with few public appearances. He instead prefers videos or live television broadcasts.
Hezbollah is designated a terror organization, either entirely or partly, by Israel, the United States, the European Union and other countries.
AFP contributed to this report.