Israel’s announcement Tuesday that it was launching an operation to destroy a number of cross-border attack tunnels it says were dug by the Iran-backed Hezbollah from Lebanon into northern Israel has raised questions about the army’s previous apparent dismissal of concerns raised by residents, who said for years that they could hear subterranean digging.
As far back as 2014, residents of northern towns raised the alarm regarding the possibility of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group tunneling below the border to carry out attacks, after an extensive series of underground passages dug by the Hamas terror group were discovered under the Gaza border in the south.
“Every complaint was checked with the technologies and capabilities available at that time. We could not substantiate those complaints,” IDF spokesman Brig. Gen Ronen Manelis told the Kan public broadcaster Tuesday, when asked about the reports from northern Israelis.
Manelis told Army Radio that the tunnels identified by the IDF were not necessarily located in areas where residents had complained of noise.
“Hezbollah tunnels are not an immediate threat, and we have ruled out the existence of tunnels in places where residents reported digging noise — the location of the tunnels does not necessarily coincide with the complaints of the civilians,” he said.
The attack tunnels were long rumored to have been dug from southern Lebanon into Israeli territory by the Iran-backed terror group, but Israeli defense officials repeatedly either denied their existence or refused to discuss the matter.
MK Itzik Shmuli of the opposition Zionist Union faction tweeted Tuesday that “it is amazing that those who mocked the residents’ reports of excavation noise are now telling us with a straight face that it is a serious and concrete threat.”
In 2014, residents of the town of Zarit were so concerned by the noise and what they perceived to be inaction from the IDF after they submitted complaints that they announced their intention to start an independent digging operation, saying they would coordinate any finds with the IDF.
In October 2014, following the Gaza war earlier that summer in which Hamas attack tunnels played a key role, the IDF established a task force, made up of intelligence and technology units, with the aim of “detecting and exposing Hezbollah’s offensive tunnel program,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said.
Israel fought a punishing war with Hezbollah in 2006, which has since given way to relative quiet along the frontier. However, Israeli officials have raised alarms over Iran arming Hezbollah, via Syria or directly into Lebanon, with precision missile technology.
“[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.
In September, Israel publicly unveiled its 11-kilometer-long, nine-meter-tall concrete border wall (6.8 miles, 30 feet) along the Lebanese border — a barrier that is hotly contested by Lebanon, but that Israel maintains is lawful and fully in accordance with the international armistice line.
The concrete barrier is designed to serve two main functions: protect Israeli civilians and soldiers from sniper attacks, and prevent infiltration into Israel by Hezbollah operatives.
According to the IDF senior officer, approximately seven years ago, Hezbollah created a special forces unit — known as the Radwan Unit — specifically tasked with crossing into Israel and causing as much mayhem and destruction as possible both for the sake of the destruction itself and for the “symbolism” of having troops carry out attacks inside Israel.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.