Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday evening that Israeli efforts to destroy cross-border tunnels build by Hezbollah were “not an isolated operation, but a wide and ongoing operation” aimed at targeting a broader push by the Iran-backed terror group to capture parts of the Galilee from Israel.
“The aim of Hezbollah has been to dig tunnels into our territory. It is part of an effort with a breadth and depth that we have not seen before,” Netanyahu said during a televised address at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
The Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday called up a small number of reservists, as it prepared for a potential retaliation by Hezbollah in response to the operation to find and destroy cross-border attack tunnels the military says the terror group dug into Israeli territory.
Earlier, the military said it uncovered the “first of what are sure to be many” cross-border attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah, as part of its newly launched Operation Northern Shield. The tunnel was found south of the Israeli town of Metulla along the Lebanese border. The army said it was some 200 meters (650 feet) long, extending some 40 meters (120 feet) into Israeli territory.
The military said it believed the tunnels were for offensive purposes, unlike the tunnels and underground bunkers used by Hezbollah during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, which were primarily utilized as defensive measures.
Hezbollah operatives were still working inside the cross-border tunnel when it was exposed on Tuesday morning, the IDF spokesperson said Tuesday evening, showing footage he said was filmed mere hours earlier inside the underground passage.
Netanyahu said that the tunnel, and others like it, were part of a wider effort to “inflict great damage” to Israel and Israeli citizens.
“Capturing parts of the Galilee by Hezbollah is a concrete threat,” he said. “It is also part of a regional and global terror effort led by Iran.”
Citing Israeli military action in Syria in recent years that he said has led to a 10 percent decrease in the number of Iranian troops operating in the war-torn country, Netanyahu said that Tuesday’s operation was part of efforts to also thwart Iranian terrorist groups operating in Lebanon.
“The operation will continue until the outcome is achieved, however long that may take,” Netanyahu said.
“I have a message for the people of Lebanon,” he added. “Hezbollah is putting your lives in danger. They are sacrificing your well-being to serve the aggressive purposes of Iran.”
He noted that “these cross-border terror tunnels were built by Hezbollah with direct support and funding from Iran. They were built with one purpose in mind – to attack and murder innocent Israeli men, women and children. This is a grave violation of Israel’s sovereignty, and a gross violation of UN Security Council Resolution #1701. It is an unacceptable act of wanton aggression.”
The tunnel found Tuesday, he added, “was built under a home in a civilian neighborhood in southern Lebanon. Now, this is just one more example of how Hezbollah is committing a double war crime. They target civilians while hiding behind civilians. And this must be condemned loudly and clearly by all nations that care about peace, freedom and human dignity.”
In an apparent effort to preempt allegations that the decision to launch Northern Shield was connected to the recent calls by police to indict him, Netanyahu said the decision to take action was made “a few weeks ago.” He also specifically thanked “former defense minister Avigdor Liberman who was part of the preparations.” Liberman resigned last month in protest of Netanyahu’s refusal to sanction a major assault on Hamas in Gaza after that terror group fired some 500 rockets at Israel.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, speaking directly after Netanyahu, said the military came to the security cabinet with the recommendation to start the operation “once the conditions were ripe,” approximately a month ago.
According to Eisenkot, the cabinet approved the operation on November 7.
He said the operation was expected to last several weeks and is being led by the head of the IDF Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick.
“This morning we initiated action to thwart Hezbollah’s intrusion into our territory, to improve our security reality in the north… to strike and to continue to strike Iranian entrenchment in the north,” Eisenkot said.
The army chief said Northern Shield was launched before the tunnels became operational and “became an immediate and direct threat to northern communities and army bases.”
Eisenkot said that in the wake of the 2014 Gaza war, in which the threat of Hamas tunnels was a key issue, the Israeli military “built a highly advanced operational, technological engineering and intelligence capability to neutralize attack tunnels, both in the north and in the south.”
The army chief said the heads of communities in northern Israel were informed of the operation ahead of time and lauded them for showing “responsibility” by not revealing that it was slated to take place.
He said that the IDF was “in possession of Hezbollah’s offensive tunneling plans” and called on Israelis to “feel safe, to continue their daily routines and to continue traveling to the north.”
Speaking before Netanyahu, IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said that Hezbollah operatives were working inside the tunnel exposed by the Israeli military on Tuesday up until its discovery, showing footage he said was filmed inside the underground passage on Tuesday morning.
In the video, a number of men could be seen walking through the tunnel until a small explosive device next to the camera lens detonated, scaring them away.
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 into Israeli territory from southern Lebanon.
According to Manelis, the tunnel originated under an ostensibly civilian building, meters away from a position controlled by the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL, which is meant to ensure that armed groups that are not the Lebanese military stay away from the border zone under UN Resolution 1701.
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 huge arsenal in the area despite Resolution 1701.
For now, the army’s activities are limited to the Israeli side of the Blue Line — the internationally recognized armistice line that acts as a de facto border between Israel and Lebanon — though Manelis indicated earlier in the day that other tunnels may be destroyed within Lebanon as well.
“We are prepared for all options, and the operation is only in its first day. The neutralizing of the tunnels will not necessarily take place within our territory,” he said.
As of Tuesday evening, the Israeli military had refrained from a mass call-up of reservists, preferring instead to enlist those from select air defense and Military Intelligence units, as the IDF does during most periods of increased tensions and unrest.
The Air Force units were called up in order to provide additional manpower to Israel’s various air defense batteries. Hezbollah is believed to have an arsenal of over 100,000 rockets and missiles — larger than that of many European countries.
Defense analysts have warned that while Hezbollah is unlikely to react so long as the IDF keeps its activities within Israel, the Iran-backed terror group may retaliate if the tunnel-busting effort crosses the border or results in deaths among its operatives.
Tuesday’s operation came as tensions on Israel’s northern border have ramped up in recent days, and hours after Netanyahu traveled to Brussels for a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss Iran and the Hezbollah tunnels.
Last Friday, the Lebanese terror group issued a warning video to Israel apparently filled with satellite images and precise map locations of strategic sites in the Jewish state, with a message: “Attack and you will regret it.”
Israel has long said 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.
“[Hezbollah’s] main goal is to kill as many people as they can in [Israeli] villages and army bases,” a senior officer IDF officer said earlier this year, in a briefing to reporters on the Lebanese border.