UNIFIL: At least 2 two tunnels crossed Israel border, violating UN resolution
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UNIFIL: At least 2 two tunnels crossed Israel border, violating UN resolution

Lebanon peacemakers confirm existence of four passages; say they’re still investigating whether Hezbollah behind them

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli soldiers show UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col a Hezbollah tunnel that penetrated Israeli territory from southern Lebanon on December 6, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli soldiers show UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col a Hezbollah tunnel that penetrated Israeli territory from southern Lebanon on December 6, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The United Nations peacekeeping force UNIFIL on Monday declared the cross-border attack tunnels dug from southern Lebanon into Israel a violation of the UN resolution that ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War, saying it has confirmed that at least two tunnels crossed into Israel.

It was the first such pronouncement about the tunnels from the peacekeeping group, formally known as the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.

Earlier this month, Israel launched Operation Northern Shield, an effort to find and destroy attack tunnels that it says were dug under the border by the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group.

The operation has raised prospects of a possible fresh conflict on the volatile border, though Lebanon has downplayed chances of war, so long as Israeli troops do not cross its territory. UN peacekeepers, meanwhile, have stepped up their patrols to ensure that the frontier remains calm.

In a statement, UNIFIL confirmed the existence of the four tunnels that Israel announced it had discovered along the border. The peacekeeping force said it ordered an independent investigations of the passages, which has so far found that at least two of the four penetrated into Israeli territory

“These constitute violations of UN Security Council Resolution 1701,” the statement said.

UN Resolution 1701 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 Resolution 1701 by conducting military activities along the border. UNIFIL has largely rebuffed these allegations, and its announcement on Monday represented one of the few cases in which it has confirmed a violation of the UN resolution.

Israeli and United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) soldiers gathered on the Israeli side of the border between the two countries, in a picture taken from the southern Lebanese village of Meiss al-Jabal, on December 9, 2018. (Ali DIA / AFP)

“UNIFIL technical teams have undertaken a number of site inspections south of the Blue Line in order to ascertain the facts,” the group said, referring to the armistice line that acts as a de facto border between Israel and Lebanon.

A spokesperson for the peacekeeping group said UNIFIL could not yet confirm the Israeli allegation that the tunnels were dug by Hezbollah, but said it was continuing to investigate the matter.

“UNIFIL has requested the Lebanese authorities ensure urgent follow-up actions in accordance with the responsibilities of the Government of Lebanon pursuant to resolution 1701,” UNIFIL said.

The peacekeeping force said it was working with both Lebanon and Israel in order to “ensure stability along the Blue Line and prevent misunderstandings in order to keep the area of operation calm.”

Also on Monday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri met with UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, telling him that Beirut remained committed to upholding UN Resolution 1701.

“Hariri said during a meeting with Del Col… that the Lebanese army, which is sole responsible of defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Lebanon, cooperates with the UNIFIL forces and will conduct patrols to deal with any flaw in the implementation of resolution 1701 from the Lebanese side,” official Lebanese state media outlet National News Agency reported Monday.

According to NNA, Hariri also called on the UN to “shoulder its responsibilities in facing the daily violations by Israel of Lebanese airspace and territorial waters.”

UNIFIL’s announcement came hours after Israeli and Lebanese troops verbally sparred along the border with guns drawn over the exact location of the border, after Israel placed concertina wire along the Blue Line as part of the ongoing tunnel-busting operation.

UN peacekeepers were at the scene, working to prevent conflict between the two sides.

This weekend, the military uncovered a fourth cross-border attack tunnel that it says Hezbollah dug into Israel from southern Lebanon.

The IDF refused to specify where the tunnel was found, but said the “relevant local governments” were notified of its location. “The tunnel is under IDF control and does not present a threat,” the army said in a statement.

The IDF filled the tunnel with explosives — as it did with the three other tunnels it exposed in recent weeks — in order to ensure that it could not be used to carry out an attack.

“Whoever enters it from the Lebanese side forfeits his life,” the army said in a statement.

The military said it believes the tunnels were meant to be used by Hezbollah as a surprise component of an opening salvo in a future war, to allow dozens or hundreds of terrorists into Israel, alongside a mass infiltration of operatives above-ground and the launching of rockets, missiles, and mortar shells at northern Israel.

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)

The specific number of tunnels that Israel believes were dug from Lebanon, as well as other information about the operation, cannot be published by order of the military censor.

According to the IDF, Operation Northern Shield is taking place close to Lebanese territory, sometimes on the north side of the border wall, albeit still inside Israeli territory.

An IDF incursion into Lebanon could spark a major confrontation with Hezbollah, which bills itself as a defender of Lebanon against Israeli aggression.

Israeli officials have indicated that the IDF may operate within Lebanese territory, if necessary, to destroy the tunnels. Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, said Tuesday that the United States assured him that Israel has “no aggressive intentions” with Operation Northern Shield.

The first and second tunnels were found outside the town of Metulla, near the Lebanese border. The military has refused to reveal the locations of the subsequent tunnels it found, and censored much of the information surrounding the operation, citing national security.

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