Analysis

Israel Takes Tunnel Op to World Stage Before Potential Use of Unprecedented Force in Lebanon

Israel is preparing for a public relations battle to halt Iran’s effort to build precision-missile factories in Lebanon, while setting the stage for a possible war with Hezbollah

Portraits of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Sept. 19, 2018
Hussein Malla,AP

Israel's efforts against Hezbollah after the discovery of the attack tunnels under the Lebanese border enter the diplomatic sphere Wednesday.

Israel's claims, which have received U.S. support, will come up in the UN Security Council's periodic briefing on the situation in the Middle East. Israel is trying to leverage military developments – the discovery of the tunnels – to increase the pressure on Hezbollah and the Lebanese government in the international arena.

On Sunday the Israel Defense Forces announced the discovery of a fourth tunnel. The systematic exposure of the tunnels in two-week-old Operation Northern Shield apparently reflects extensive intelligence information. The impression is that the IDF is working according to a plan and is exposing Hezbollah’s tunnel program step by step.

This gradual exposure also serves the diplomatic angle. The operation remains in the headlines in Israel, even if the international media’s interest waned once the tunnel phenomenon was no longer new.

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Israel is also trying to maintain awareness of the tunnels through visits to the border by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has already toured there twice, and President Reuven Rivlin, who has been there once.

At the United Nations, Israel will claim that the digging of tunnels into its territory violated its sovereignty and Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

The Lebanese government, for its part, is protesting Israeli threats against the people of south Lebanon – including a text message to villagers near the newly discovered tunnels – and Israel Air Force flights to take photographs. Israel had hoped that the discovery of the tunnels would convince Washington to impose sanctions on Lebanon and limit U.S. aid to the Lebanese Army, but the Trump administration has signaled that this won't happen.

On the ground, the engineering work will continue for at least a few more weeks. Military Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot had originally hoped to begin the work before the winter, but the debate in the cabinet on the need for the operation delayed the engineering work. The IDF believes that it might find a few more tunnels along the border.

The UN Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, has a strong presence at the border, in areas where Israel is operating. The IDF shows every tunnel it exposes to the UN officers. The most sensitive locations are the areas north of the patrol fence that are still under Israeli sovereignty; there’s no physical separation between the sides there. The IDF knows that Lebanese intelligence agents are always there; Hezbollah operatives may be among them.

Sure enough, on Monday the Lebanese military declared a state of high alert at an area where Lebanese soldiers prevented Israeli soldiers from unrolling a barbed wire fence, according to Lebanese reports and video footage.

Despite the American support for the Israeli complaints against Hezbollah, it’s doubtful whether Israel’s efforts at the United Nations will yield immediate results. But Netanyahu seems to be aiming at longer-term goals.

First, Israel is preparing for a public relations battle to halt Iran’s effort to build precision-missile factories for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The tunnels, which betray Hezbollah’s belligerent intentions, make it easier to convey the message on the missile issue as well, which Hezbollah considers even more important. Second, in the background is always the possibility that future tension with Hezbollah – especially surrounding the missile factories – will lead to war.

In any war, the IDF will resort to unprecedented force in Lebanon in a densely populated civilian area. The current steps are designed to prepare the ground in the international arena to justify the IDF’s operations. Israel won’t receive approval from the international community at any stage, but it considers it important to explain its reasoning and the complex circumstances under which it may have to act.

UN peacekeepers hold their flag, as they observe Israeli excavators working near the southern border village of Mays al-Jabal, Lebanon, December 13, 2018.
Hussein Malla/AP