Analysis

Attack Tunnels on the Israel-Lebanon Border Are Only a Prelude to the Real Hezbollah Threat

Hezbollah's precision-missile factories in Beirut are likely to dominate the Israeli agenda in the upcoming year – but an indictment against Netanyahu could delay the response

Israeli troops on the Israel-Lebanon border, December 1, 2018.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

As planned, Israel launched a diplomatic campaign against the Lebanese government and Hezbollah this week after uncovering the tunnels dug by the Shi’ite organization under the Israel-Lebanon border. On Wednesday, a few hours before a UN Security Council session on the matter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the tunnels were part of Hezbollah’s plans for war, adding that the group uses “every third house in southern Lebanon.”

Netanyahu called on the council to define Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and impose sanctions on it – two things that probably won't happen in the near future.

>> Read more: Israel takes tunnel op to world stage before potential use of unprecedented force in Lebanon ■ 'Hezbollah's Operation Barbarossa': How army chief pushed Netanyahu to go after the tunnels

The success of Israeli intelligence in locating the tunnels won't be translated into a fundamental change along the border. Israel will have to salvage whatever it can from the achievement, mostly by increasing pressure on the United Nations' UNIFIL forces to show greater resolve in southern Lebanon.   

Officers who until recently served in UNIFIL told Haaretz that the possibility of attack tunnels under the border came up in talks with Israeli officers in recent years. The former UNIFIL officers said UN troops would need a court order to search houses in villages in southern Lebanon. They admitted that UNIFIL, because of the restrictions placed on its activities, is hard-pressed in providing a reliable picture of what's happening along the border. 

Although no one in the United Nations admits it directly, the main constraint comes from UNIFIL’s senior command itself. It's clear to the force’s officers that Hezbollah will lash out the minute it senses danger.

The group acted that way in 2007, the year after the Second Lebanon War. The Spanish battalion was very active in its sector, before a car bomb blew up near one of its patrols and killed six Spanish soldiers. The message was received – and according to the finest of Lebanese traditions. Since then, Hezbollah has had nearly no problems with undesired supervision.  

Hezbollah has been keeping total radio silence since the Israeli surprise. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah declared back in September that he would no longer respond publicly to every “Israeli provocation.” His announcement came shortly after Netanyahu revealed to the UN General Assembly Hezbollah's efforts to improve the precision of its missiles. At the same time, the Lebanese government – which denies it knew about the tunnels – has responded by harshly condemning the “Israeli violations of its sovereignty” and, more importantly, the air force's flights over Lebanon.

It's clear to all parties that the debate over the tunnels is just a preview of the much broader disagreement expected to occur over Hezbollah's precision-missile factories in Beirut – first as an Israeli diplomatic effort and later, possibly even as justification for preemptive military action against the missiles. The missile factories will be at the center of Israel’s affairs this coming year, according to many defense officials. 

But for now, it seems that Netanyahu – like U.S. President Donald Trump – expects more pressing personal problems. With all due respect to the American withdrawal from Syria and the tunnels from Lebanon, the most dramatic headline of the past week concerned the state prosecutor's recommendation to charge Netanyahu for allegedly offering benefits in return for positive news coverage. (This refers to Case 2000 involving the tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth and Case 4000 involving the Bezeq telecommunications company's Walla website.)

Israeli soldiers gather near excavation equipment near the northern Israeli town of Metula. Lebanese houses are seen on the hillside in the background, December 19, 2018.
AFP

The prosecutor's recommendation is an earthquake that could affect the timetable for the next Israeli election, and possibly even the election itself.  With all this going on, it could be that Hezbollah's precision-missile plants in Beirut will have to wait.

No A for effort

The Knesset continued dealing intensively last week with the criticism by the Israel Defense Forces' ombudsman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik. On Monday, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee said goodbye to Brik, who will finish up his term in three weeks.    

On Wednesday, the subcommittee on military preparedness presented the conclusions of its work since Brik’s criticism of the IDF’s ground forces' preparedess for war. The subcommittee, chaired by MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union), studied the defense establishment’s internal reports, visited the bases where reserves units’ equipment is stored and met with General Staff generals, division commanders and battalion commanders in the reserves.   

The subcommittee’s conclusions are very different from Brik’s loud warning bells. Bar-Lev was impressed that the military under Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot has significantly improved its preparedness for war during the four plus years since the 2014 Gaza war. But Bar-Lev also identified major gaps, and the subcommittee recommended the IDF to finish the work. The subcommittee accepted Eisenkot’s conclusion that the military must invest resources and give precedence – in training and equipment – to its elite divisions over a few reserve divisions.

The subcommittee’s report is a lot like a school report card, a member of the subcommittee said. The student, the IDF, is progressing very nicely but could try harder. The General Staff is pleased with the conclusions of the Bar-Lev subcommittee. To the generals, this is an objective and independent response to Brik's harsh accusations against the military.

In comparison, Brik – who it seems has upped his media efforts as the end of his term nears – has expressed much less satisfaction. The members of the subcommittee “missed out on the one-time opportunity to help the IDF rescue itself from the mire in which the ground forces are sinking,” Brik said.

The next chapter in the Brik-Eisenkot saga will start next week. The steering committee appointed by Eisenkot, headed by retired major generals Doron Almog and Avi Mizrahi, will present its own report. This should be a short document that won't directly address the dispute with Brik and won't deal with Brik’s (accurate) criticism of the IDF’s organizational culture. 

The Almog-Mizrahi committee is expected to focus on the issues that need improvement concerning the ground forces' preparedness for war. Eisenkot will have his say in his television interviews before he finishes his term in mid-January. But the changes will be carried out by his successor, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.