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From Gaza to Israeli Elections: Seven Insights Into Operation Against Hezbollah Tunnels

Questions - and answers - around Israel's Operation Northern Shield

Israeli-Lebanon border, December 4, 2018
AFP

The Israeli army launched Operation Northern Shield on Tuesday to destroy Hezbollah attack tunnels crossing into Israel from Lebanon. The tunnels were found over the past several years, and according to the army, are part of Hezbollah’s “Conquest of the Galilee” plan.

What is the tunnels’ purpose?

Does northern op mean war?Haaretz Weekly

Israel’s security services believe the tunnels were designed to permit Hezbollah to launch a surprise attack and penetrate into an Israeli town near one of the tunnel’s openings. The spokesman for the Israeli army, Ronen Manelis, said on Tuesday that Israeli forces “are working in the Metula area, and in the coming days, the operation will be expanded to other parts along the front.”

How long will the operation last?

Political sources have told Haaretz that it is expected to take “weeks.”

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Is there a connection between this operation and the decision to refrain from carrying out a military operation last month in the Gaza Strip?

Yes. It can now be reported that the presence of the tunnels in the north were among the considerations in the security cabinet decision not to launch a full-scale operation in Gaza following last month’s botched Israeli military operation there and the firing of some 500 rockets from Gaza at Israel. Most of the ministers agreed, in keeping with the defense establishment’s position, that an offensive in Gaza was not appropriate at the time, out of concern over an escalation on two fronts.

That is what Prime Minister Netanyahu was referring to on a visit to Paris last month when he referred to security issues that he could not disclose. Avidgor Lieberman, who resigned his post as defense minister following the cease-fire announcement, disagreed with the assessment that the northern front required immediate action. He insisted that the situation in Gaza was more pressing. For their part, Habayit Hayehudi cabinet members Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked demanded a tough response in the future in Gaza.

And what about the connection between Operation Northern Shield and Netanyahu’s decision not to move up the date of Knesset elections?

Several cabinet ministers criticized Netanyahu on Tuesday for using classified information about the tunnels and the northern operation to justify putting off elections. As they saw it, the level of the threat did not justify a delay in dissolving the current narrow coalition of 61 members. Since Tuesday’s disclosure of the operation, most cabinet members have expressed support for the cease-fire decision in Gaza at the time. The Prime Minister’s Office instructed the ministers not to grant interviews over concern that it would complicate the situation with Hezbollah.

Residents of the north have long complained about hearing digging noises, so why has the decision been made now to take action?

Immediately following the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced a plan to conquer the Galilee. Israeli defense officials understood that the plan would also include border tunnels through which Hezbollah terrorists would enter Israel. Army officials at the time said they had not found evidence of tunnels but the army decided to establish a special team to look for them. As a result, over the past two and a half years, the army has made preparations for the operation that began on Tuesday. Nevertheless, army spokesman Ronen Manelis said on Tuesday that “the locations where tunnels have been found don’t necessarily correspond to the locations where citizens complained” about hearing digging noises.

What are the implications for the residents of the north?

Israeli army officials have decided not to declare a special situation in the north, but situation assessments are being carried out all the time to assess Hezbollah’s response to Operation Northern Shield. At this stage, farmers have been told not to approach the border barrier and in the northern town of Safed, Mayor Shuki Ohana ordered that the city’s bomb shelters be inspected. At the same time, the Israeli army spokesman said that “the tunnels that have been found are not an immediate threat and are not ready” for use.

What steps did the Israeli army take prior to Operation Northern Shield?

In 2015, Israel announced the construction of a new border barrier on the northern border aimed at putting a stop to Hezbollah’s attack plan. As part of the project, Israel seemingly carried out work above ground, but it also inspected the situation under the ground with engineering technology and intelligence information that led to the conclusion that the tunnels exist.