Three days after the exposure of the attack tunnels that Hezbollah dug into Israeli territory under the Lebanon border, the significance of the discovery is becoming clearer. After the criticism of the IDF media blitz and the political leveraging by Prime Minister Netanyahu, it’s best not to lose sight of the military implications of the events. After years of searching, the army located a vital component of Hezbollah’s offensive plans in the north.
If the confidence that the intelligence community is expressing in its information proves to be well-founded, Israel is hoping to deprive the enemy of an important capability upon which a portion of its preparations for a future war relied. (This war is not erupting yet because at present is still does not serve the interests of either side.) Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal and its attempt to upgrade their level of precision are still its top priority, but the tunnels were also a critical aspect of its program.
When Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah first began issuing threats about his organization’s intention “to conquer the Galilee” in the next war, Israel was initially dismissive. But after Nasrallah kept saying the same thing in public, Israel’s military intelligence seriously set about trying to decipher his meaning.
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Why would Nasrallah boast in this way when the most his organization could hope to do was send a few cells of attackers across the border for a surprise attack on a single community? Even Hezbollah couldn’t turn a few rocket barrages on the Israeli home front into a victory photo.
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The answer gradually became clear only after the 2014 Gaza war. Israel realized that Hezbollah was aiming to copy the Hamas model of attack tunnels, in a slightly different form.
The tunnels it dug, which apparently were fewer in number and shorter, were designed to meet the specific needs of the northern front: the quick and secret transfer of hundreds of fighters from the outskirts of the villages in southern Lebanon into Israel, thus to lay the groundwork for a wider ground offensive that would immediately follow.
The balance of power between the sides is clear. Hezbollah, with no air force, would not be able to maintain any strongholds it seizes in the Galilee for long, but the shock that such a surprise attack would have on the Israeli public would be enough to give Hezbollah an image of victory, and all the Israeli air strikes and ground incursions that would ensue inside Lebanon would not erase this impression.
Nasrallah understands Israeli society’s DNA very well, as a member of the IDF general staff said the other day. The tunnel plan was directed precisely at this. “This was the cornerstone of Hezbollah’s approach, a move that was supposed to take us by surprise without us knowing what hit us.”
Asked how critical this operation was at this time, given the criticism in the media and the questions that have arisen in the political arena, his response was unexpectedly forceful: Had war broken out and we had left this threat untreated, the Agranat Commission’s criticisms of the IDF following the Yom Kippur War would have paled in comparison to what would have happened in this case, and rightly so. “We could not go on living with this threat for one day. And this is a genuine answer, not covering our ass.”
The suspicious Lebanese factory
The effort to locate the tunnels, which was coordinated by army intelligence and the IDF Northern Command with the aid of technology and engineering units, covered a very extensive area along 130 kilometers of the border fence. It was some time before a breakthrough was achieved. The teams of experts identified methods of operation and looked for unusual characteristics. At the same time, the area was analyzed from what would be Hezbollah’s vantage point: Which roads and sites are vital to Israel and where are the vulnerable spots that would allow access to them?
The IDF spent many months searching before it found the tunnel next to Metula, whose entry shaft on the Lebanese side was dug beneath a cement block factory in Kafr Kila. When the army noticed that the factory was not receiving materials but just transporting cargo from the site on trucks, it realized what was really going on there.
By the summer, conditions were ripe to launch an engineering operation. Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom, head of Military Intelligence’s research department, felt that more information was still needed to have the most accurate intelligence and be certain that the tunnels would be found. Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, MI chief Tamir Heyman and Northern Command head Yoel Strick felt it was time to act.
Eisenkot permitted Shalom to present his minority position to the cabinet as well. Meanwhile, a debate arose over which action was more important. Avigdor Lieberman, who was still defense minister, felt that the threat in the north was not as urgent as the ongoing escalation in the south. Lieberman also suspected that Eisenkot was using the need for an operation in the north as an excuse to justify avoiding an operation against Hamas in Gaza.
When Eisenkot became chief of staff in February 2015, he cited the removal of enemy tunnels into Israel as a top priority. The trauma of the tunnels in Operation Protective Edge was still fresh and the defense establishment had begun a major project (budgeted at close to 4 billion shekels, or just over $1 billion) to build the tunnel barrier wall and develop technology to locate the tunnels.
In early 2017, credible information about tunnels on the Lebanon border began to accumulate as well. Eisenkot pushed to advance the move. We can’t repeat the mistake of hoping that the tunnels will grow rusty like the rockets, he told his people, alluding to former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon’s controversial statement prior to the Second Lebanon War.
But more time passed until the army had solid and sufficiently detailed information on the northern tunnels, and other challenges popped up in the interim. Israel began a campaign to strike Iranian targets in Syria with the aim of halting the entrenchment of the Revolutionary Guards and the Shi’ite militias there.
In the summer of 2018, with the tension rising over the incendiary kites and balloons on the Gazan border, the northern operation was postponed once more, though Eisenkot insisted that it not be put off as late as winter. It would be negligent not to start dealing with the tunnels in the north, he argued.
In September, the planned operation was presented to Netanyahu and then, on November 7, to the cabinet. In the cabinet discussion, Lieberman said again that the threat was less urgent than portrayed by the army and that the most necessary move at this time was a ground incursion against Hamas in Gaza.
During the interlude, in October, Eisenkot traveled to the United States and presented the tunnel threat to the American administration for the first time. Netanyahu also discussed it early in the week at his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels. The prime minister had many topics to discuss with Pompeo. The operation to locate the tunnels was first on the list.
So what will Hezbollah do now? The defense establishment is somewhat surprised by the relative quiet with which the Israeli action along the northern border was received in Lebanon this week. The sense is that Hezbollah genuinely did not anticipate the Israeli move and is still assessing the impact of its lost military assets that were exposed. However, Nasrallah is unlikely to let Israeli propaganda go unchecked for very long.
For now, a military escalation does not seem to be in the offing. And yet, the continued efforts to locate the tunnels will generate tension on both sides of the border, with an even more challenging problem for Israel lurking just around the corner: the Iranian effort to build production lines in Lebanon for systems that will improve the precision of Hezbollah’s rockets.
Netanyahu and other Israeli spokespeople have stated again and again that Israel will not allow such factories to be built. The fuse that could ignite the next war has already been shown to us. At the same time, many voices are still pressing for restraint. But all signs indicate that 2019 is going to be extra tense on the security front, regardless of when the next Israeli elections are held.