The operation launched by Israel’s Defense Forces on Dec. 4 to uncover and disable the assault tunnels, which Hizballah has covertly dug under the border from Lebanon, followed lively debates in Israel’s security and foreign affairs cabinet and among its generals about its timing, in preference to other more pressing actions.
Details of the operation are revealed here by DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources: The IDF engineers were using a map of 5-8 known tunnels fanning across the entire 79km Lebanese-Israeli border from Metulah in the east to Rosh Hanikra on Israel’s western Mediterranean coast. They were all dug from Shiite villages close to the border and were relatively short, 200-300m. While the terrain is mostly rocky and therefore hard to excavate at much depth, Hizballah’s engineers bored through the soft layers of soil collecting between the rocks after rainfall.
The first tunnel exposed on Sunday started in the Lebanese village of Kila and continued under the border to Metulah, the northernmost town on the map of Israel, just a few hundred meters away. (See attached map.) A second tunnel runs from Balida village towards the Naftali Hills; a third from Lebanese Rmaych to Moshav Dovev north of Safed – and not far from IDF positions on Mt Dovev which stand guard over northern Israel; a tunnel dug from Bint Jubail was routed to Moshav Avivim, just opposite a border crossing; another one from Ayta Shaab headed towards Moshav Shetulah.
A sixth underground line runs from Ramaia to Moshav Zar’it. There may be more tunnels which have not yet been discovered
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu presented a dossier on the Hizballah assault tunnel project to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when they met in Brussels on Monday, Dec. 3, the day before the IDF operation kicked off. With him were Mossad Director Yossie Cohen and National Securit5y Adviser Meir Bin-Shabat. (See a separate article on the full contents of that sensational dossier.)
Under the grand title of “Operation Northern Shield,” it was approved in the first week of November by the Security and Foreign Affairs cabinet after a tense debate over whether the Hizballah tunnels should take precedence over other more urgent operations, such as a military offensive against Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist aggression from the Gaza Strip.
Government and military officials had known those subterranean structures existed for more than two years, since late 2015. During the session, some senior officers maintained that the Hizballah tunnel/bunkers could stay on a back burner, while more urgent enemy targets were first tackled in Syria and the Gaza Strip. Other Hizballah assets were far more dangerous, they said, citing its arsenal of 130-150,000 short- and medium range rockets and the workshops busily upgrading them to precision-guided projectiles. The Iranian proxy had also accumulated a fleet of drones which boosted its combat capabilities in Syria.
The cabinet debate finally came down to the question of whether the tunnels posed a direct and imminent threat to northern Israel – in other words, was Hizballah about to mount large-scale incursions of terrorists for capturing parts of Galilee and so fulfill its long-acclaimed goal?
To this question, the ministers and generals had no clear, consensual answer. Some of the latter downplayed the value of the tunnels as no more than shelters to house Hizballah fighting men near the border in the event of a war, and therefore not immediately threatening. Those officers stressed that the new tunnels were quite unlike the bunkers serving Hizballah in the 2006 war against Israel. One such bunker was not discovered in time, and so Israeli forces pushed into Lebanon without realizing that behind them was an underground Hizballah fortress well supplied with weapons, food and water and prepared for a surprise attack. The Israel operation that eventually destroyed this hidden facility cost dear in casualties. However, ran the argument, since the new Hizballah tunnels are no more than entry points for border crossings – and since the IDF knows where they are and can disable them – the operation to destroy them can wait for an outbreak of hostilities.
This argument drew strong resistance from another group of officers, who maintained that enemy tunnels under the border were too dangerous to leave in place and they must be neutralized without delay.
At length, further discussions in smaller ministerial, military and intelligence forums, yielded general consensus on one point: Since Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists have embarked on an escalated challenge to Israel’s security from the Gaza Strip, Israel has no choice but to bring closure to at least one of two fronts – the south against Gaza or the north against Hizballah – or else risk being crushed between them.
In the event, Operation Northern Shield launched against Hizballah tunnels this week came short of bringing closure to either front – certainly not against Hizballah. As new defense minister, Netanyahu and IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkot stuck to the principles governing their conduct of Israel’s military operations hitherto, namely –
- Preventing full-scale war.
- Conveying a message to the enemy, Hizballah, that Israel does not seek war.
- Israel is not about to strike Hizballah’s strategic assets and only cautioning the Lebanese group against sending branches of its bunker/tunnel network across the border.
- To make this point crystal clear, the IDF spokesman reiterated that the operation against the tunnels would be confined to Israeli territory, i.e., a virtual pledge to refrain from spilling the operation outside its borders.
- The Netanyahu-Eisenkot strategy for the Gaza Strip is accordingly mirrored for the Lebanese tunnel project. Operation Northern Shield is confined to the Israeli side of the Lebanese border, just as in the south, Israeli troops are tied down to defensive positions opposite the Gaza border and restrained from tackling Palestinian Hamas violence.
- The counter-tunnel operation was moreover used cynically to distract from the delivery on Tuesday of the second $15m instalment of Qatari cash to Gaza, a widely criticized sop to the Palestinian terrorists.
This Israeli strategy has boosted the self-assurance of Hamas and the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and will have the same effect on the belligerent leaders of Hizballah.