The first tunnel the Israeli army uncovered along the border with Lebanon was not inside Metula, as some of Tuesday’s media reports implied, but rather a few hundred meters southwest of the town.
A short ride on an army vehicle through Metula’s apple orchards brings one to a large field abutting a concrete border wall, which was erected over the past year to protect the community. Various types of excavators were digging away as dozens of soldiers and officers worked around them.
A soldier in a protected observation post operates a camera that records the events unfolding below, inside the tunnel. That device aided in setting off an explosion when Hezbollah operatives tried to dismantle the camera underground, and was the device that supplied the comic image of the day: A video shared by the army shows two men from the organization fleeing the tunnel after the explosion.
The Israeli journalists who were brought on Wednesday to the field, now a closed military zone, were barred from photographing the scene. That didn’t affect the television crews that gathered on the Lebanese side of the border and recorded every movement on the Israeli side.
Lebanon’s leaders are downplaying the Israeli operation. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri of the Amal movement said Wednesday that Israel is free to dig to its heart’s content, as long as it remains on its wide of the border. But it seems that everyone in south Lebanon recognizes the significance of the new development.
A brief tour of the terminus of the first tunnel, with officers from the Northern Command, sheds light on Hezbollah’s presumed plan. According to intelligence assessments, the organization did not have a concrete date for launching a war on Israel. The tunnels were part of Hezbollah’s preparations for the future, meant to facilitate a surprise attack, similar to the strategy employed by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
In an article published in the Israel Defense Forces journal Maarachot in June 2014, Military Intelligence officers described the changes made to Hezbollah’s plans. When the organization’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, first threatened to “conquer the Galilee,” it was an idle threat. Hezbollah and its Iranian masters know they cannot vanquish the IDF or drive it out of significant parts of the Galilee.
That’s not the plan. The plan is to launch a war with a surprise attack, in which commando forces will cross the border and take control of remote communities or military positions for a limited period of time while targeting the reinforcements the army will surely deploy. The plan has since become more sophisticated, incorporating lessons learned by Hamas in Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip as well as the relatively complex offensive operations carried out by Hezbollah militants in the Syrian civil war.
The tunnels were supposed to allow companies from Hezbollah’s Radwan special forces unit enter Israel undetected. The tunnel that was uncovered outside Metula is shorter and shallower than the ones the IDF has found in the south, but even so it could have brought dozens of militants into Israel quickly. From there, they were to spread out, take key positions and begin employing snipers and anti-tank missiles against the IDF.
Immediately after the shock troops invaded Israeli territory using the tunnels, as their assault was detected, more forces would breach the border fence. Metula is a desirable target to Hezbollah, accessible only by a single, relatively steep road.
At the same time, according to assessments, additional companies of militants were to use other tunnels to enter Israel before spreading out and occupying strategic points along the ridges south of the border, in an effort to stop Israeli troops from advancing northward.
The IDF Northern Command, police intelligence and the army Engineering Corps are prepared for an operation to detect additional tunnels that is expected to continue for weeks and could go on for months.
The military and political officials are signaling, at least now, total confidence in the quality of the intelligence they possess about the tunnels. The impression is that the searches are focused on specific areas that will allow for the discovery of more tunnels. The military is unfazed by criticism claiming that it was possible to make a more aggressive move that would constitute a stronger deterrent.
The goal was to remove the threat, but also to contain Hezbollah along the border and prevent a slide into violence. It's likely that the organization would have responded with force to Israel crossing the border to conduct operations on the other side. Such a move could have developed into several days of fighting against Hezbollah, if not an all-out war in the north.
In the eyes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as those of Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, it was critical to carry out the operation and to do so now. The right operational and technological conditions developed over the past few months, and according to assessments, Hezbollah might have been able to get the tunnels ready for action within a few weeks, if necessary.
In the weeks to come, Israel plans to leverage the discovery of the tunnels for diplomatic gains, as it did with the tunnels dug under the Gaza border by Hamas.
Netanyahu will turn the site outside Metula into a “model tunnel,” inviting diplomats from around the world to observe Hezbollah’s offensive intentions in person. The exposure of the tunnels is a stage in a protracted Israel war against Iran and Hezbollah. All the signs suggest that all the combatants plan to continue to clash next year, too.