The events on Tuesday morning now allow to state out loud what could only be hinted at recently due to the heavy restrictions imposed by the military censor: The Israeli army has embarked on the public phase of a wide-scale operation to find and destroy attack tunnels that Hezbollah has dug under the Lebanese border with Israel.
This is the immediate backdrop to the growing nervousness on the northern front in recent weeks, to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's lightning visit to Brussels on Monday, where he met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the situation in the north, and also apparently to the hints that Netanyahu made about two weeks ago about an emergency security situation that he said required the Habayit Hayehudit party to remain in his faltering government coalition.
Despite Tuesday morning's dramatic announcements and the highly symbolic name chosen for the current operation – Operation Northern Shield – the steps being taken by Israel are far from a harbinger of war. Israel is carrying out legitimate defensive activity, in its own territory, to foil offensive preparations that Hezbollah has carried out for a future move against the country.
The engineering work is being conducted on the Israeli side of the border and is addressing the violation of Israeli sovereignty by Hezbollah, which has dug tunnels into Israel territory. (And of course Israel hasn’t refrained either from taking action violating Lebanese and Syrian sovereignty; in recent years, the Israel Air Force has attacked Syrian territory hundreds of times and has frequently flown over Lebanon to collect intelligence information and as a deterrence).
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The Israeli move now deprives Hezbollah of an important offensive card that the Lebanese militia group had been saving in the event war breaks out. From its standpoint, this is a major operational disappointment, but it's far from constituting a reason to start a war at this time. According to the assessments in Israel, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is not interested in war and actually serves as a restraining force in decision-making among Tehran, Damascus and Beirut – despite his frequent public threats.
The Israeli prime minister's trip to Brussels on Monday apparently had two components: Coordination with the Americans on Israel's military steps to find the tunnels, and conveying another strong warning signal to the Lebanese government that it should sit quietly and try to rein in Hezbollah to prevent an escalation along the border.
The more disturbing question is how Iran will react in the future – and whether it will find a way to exact a price from Israel, perhaps on another border, for foiling its operational plans. Undertaking the tunnel project has been an expensive, secret venture of critical importance to Iran and Hezbollah. It's clear that the Iranians have also been in the picture – and that some of the operational insights have relied on knowledge gained by Hamas in its own underground activity in the Gaza Strip over the past decade.
The Israeli defense establishment achieved a technological and intelligence breakthrough in finding the tunnels in Gaza about a year ago, and has since located and destroyed nearly 15 attack tunnels on both sides of the Israeli-Gaza border. But this important operational success also gradually contributed to the deterioration later on between Israel and Hamas and prompted Hamas to deliberately heat things up along the Gaza border with Israel, with the demonstrations that began at the end of March.
Digging tunnels in the ground, like locating the tunnels, on the northern border is an immeasurably difficult task. The Israeli army disclosed minimal detail on Tuesday regarding its preparations in this regard in recent years - an understanding formulated in 2012 that when Hezbollah talks about a future plan to "conquer the Galilee," it also includes plans for a surprise attack through tunnels; and convening a special team in 2014 to examine the problem and frequent efforts in recent years to find tunnels.
The Israeli army has yet to reveal how many years have elapsed since the tunnels were dug and how long it was until they were discovered (but it was apparently a considerable period); whether it suspects that there are more tunnels in addition to those that have been found; and whether there might have been reason to undertake such a step several months back when the ongoing preparations to act began.
Another question relates to the political realm. In a speech on November 18, Netanyahu said the country was expecting a period with security challenges and added that the public would be required to "sacrifice." The outgoing defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, minimized the importance of the comments, and apparently the members of the cabinet from the Habayit Hayehudi party, who decided to stay in the government, were not convinced that there was a danger of war.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday morning, a significant security challenge was disclosed that now requires close personal involvement from the prime minister, from army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and from the head of the army's Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick. It should be remembered that the tunnels are not the only urgent issue on the agenda. Israel has also been warning of the consequences of Iran's plans to set up precision weaponry plants for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel also needs to be prepared for changes being dictated by Russia, which to a great extent has closed Syrian airspace to attacks by the Israel Air Force, but has also forced Iran to curtail its weapons smuggling convoys.