Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday warned the Hezbollah terror group that it would face an “unimaginable” response if it tried to interfere with the Israeli military’s efforts to uncover and destroy what it says is a network of cross-border tunnels snaking into the country from Lebanon.
Netanyahu made the threat while touring the northern border, where troops have been working since last week to find the attack tunnels and render them unusable.
“If Hezbollah makes the mistake, and decides, in any way, to attack us or to oppose our operation, they will be hit with unimaginable blows,” Netanyahu vowed, as the army said it uncovered a third Hezbollah cross-border attack tunnel that penetrated Israeli territory from southern Lebanon.
The army said it had drilled into the passage and planted explosives inside it to ensure it cannot be used.
Netanyahu said the army had secretly tracked the tunnel-digging project before launching Operation Northern Shield, deflecting criticism that the military had allowed the terror group to build up attack infrastructure under the border.
“They thought they were undetected, but we knew and we planned,” Netanyahu said. “We kept it secret and it did not leak. We have planned this with great attention to detail and we are carrying out exactly what we planned.”
The army has also said it is aware of the existence of other tunnels, but has yet to fully expose them.
The operation has raised tensions of a possible fresh conflict on the volatile border, which has seen two wars in recent decades, though Lebanon has downplayed chances of war so long as Israeli troops do not cross the border. UN peacekeepers have also stepped up patrols to ensure the frontier remains calm.
Netanyahu said Israel was “completely prepared” for any challenges.
Netanyahu said the operation was ahead of schedule and would continue until “we totally nullify the Hezbollah tunnel threat.”
“Imagine what would happen if we did not do this, imagine that on one gray foggy day Hezbollah would spring out of these tunnels and kidnap our people,” said Netanyahu, who is also now defense minister.
Later, speaking to the leaders of communities along the border, Netanyahu said the operation was part of a wider effort to counter the threats posed by Hezbollah, which also included their precision guided missiles and the tens of thousands of more-basic rockets.
Netanyahu said Israel’s efforts to counter Iranian and Hezbollah efforts to upgrade the rockets to precision missiles had been met with “impressive success.”
Israel has carried out dozens of air strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah bases and convoys in Syria to stop the transfer of these weapons and warned Lebanon that Iran is trying to set up factories in the country.
On Tuesday, the IDF said it had found a third tunnel from Lebanon in Israeli territory, and peacekeepers confirmed the existence of two other attack tunnels previously revealed by the army.
The operation is taking place close to Lebanese territory, sometimes on the north side of a 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 its Operation Northern Shield.
The first tunnel was found south of the town of Metulla, near the Lebanese border. The military has refused to reveal the locations of both subsequent tunnels found and the military has censored much of the information surrounding the operation citing national security.
“The tunnel is within IDF control and does not present a threat,” an army statement said of the third tunnel on Tuesday.
The military also warned that “anyone who enters it from the Lebanese side puts his life at risk.”
The border operation, which is expected to include the IDF destroying whatever tunnels are found, has raised the specter of renewed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, which the IDF sees as one of its primary military threats in the region.
The military said it believes the tunnels were meant to be used by the Iran-backed terror group 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.
IDF soldiers were mapping and studying the new tunnel, which the army called another “serious violation of Resolution 1701 and the State of Israel’s sovereignty.”
United Nations Resolution 1701 ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War and required all armed groups besides the Lebanese military to remain north of the country’s Litani River.
The army said the Lebanese government was responsible for the tunnels being dug inside its territory and said it was “continuing with its approved plans to continue finding and exposing terror tunnels.”
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.
So far, the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL has confirmed the existence of the first and second tunnels. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had yet to comment on the third.
“UNIFIL is continuing to follow up on this issue in close coordination with the Lebanese Armed Forces,” the commander of the peacekeeping force, Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, said in a statement.
The military has been closely coordinating its efforts with UNIFIL and, through the peacekeeping force, the Lebanese Armed Forces in order to prevent misunderstandings and potential clashes.
On Tuesday, a delegation of senior Israeli military officers flew to Moscow in order to discuss the operation and other matters with their Russian counterparts.
Netanyahu also said he will demand that the UN Security Council discuss the matter.