US Embassy bars workers from parts of north amid search for Hezbollah tunnels
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US Embassy bars workers from parts of north amid search for Hezbollah tunnels

Head of local council says ban is a ‘reward to terrorism,’ calls on Netanyahu to press Trump administration to rescind order

Israeli machinery operates next to a concrete wall separating Israel and Lebanon, in a photograph taken from the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, near the border with Israel, on December 9, 2018. (Ali Dia/AFP)
Israeli machinery operates next to a concrete wall separating Israel and Lebanon, in a photograph taken from the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, near the border with Israel, on December 9, 2018. (Ali Dia/AFP)

The United States Embassy in Jerusalem barred American government employees and their families on Friday from visiting parts of northern Israel, amid an Israeli campaign to locate cross-border attack tunnels dug by Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group.

The instructions prohibit travel to areas of the Galilee and the Golan Heights, with exceptions for the towns of Safed and Rosh Pina.

“Official travel by US government employees in these areas is permitted only to conduct essential travel and may require additional security measures,” the embassy said.

Giora Salz, head of the Upper Galilee Regional Council, called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin to press the Trump administration to rescind the ban.

“Such a directive is a reward to terrorism and there is no justification [in light of] the current state of affairs,” he said in a statement.

Salz called on Israelis to tour the area and “show the resilience of Israeli society.”

Israel earlier this month launched “Operation Northern Shield” in order to locate tunnels it says are being dug by Hezbollah to launch cross-border attacks.

Israeli troops search for a Hezbollah border-crossing attack tunnel from southern Lebanon, along the northern border, on December 8, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Touring the northern border Tuesday, Netanyahu warned Hezbollah it would face an “unimaginable” response if it tried to interfere with the Israeli military’s anti-tunnel efforts.

“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,” he 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) as he meets with soldiers in the northern city of Safed on December 11, 2018. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

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.

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 fence, 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.

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