Analysis

Israel Seeks to Leverage Op Against Hezbollah Tunnels to Complete Lebanon Border Wall

Operation may take longer to complete than originally thought ■ On the Lebanese side, Hezbollah's silence is deafening ■ Local incidents have the potential of sparking broader conflict

An Israeli soldier gestures as he is seen from Meis al-Jabal village in south Lebanon, December 9, 2018.
\ AZIZ TAHER/ REUTERS

The Israeli operation to locate the tunnels along the border with Lebanon is now entering its second stage. After the surprising announcement about the discovery of the tunnels and the media campaign against Hezbollah, the IDF is now moving on to systematically surveying the border region. So far, the discovery of two tunnels in Israeli territory has been reported, and the location of a third tunnel on the Lebanese side of the border has been provided to UN forces.

In the Lebanese political arena, the continued silence of Hezbollah has stood out – alongside the embarrassment that the affair has brought on among the rest of the country’s power centers.

>> Read more: Hezbollah's tunnels prove Nasrallah has cracked Israel's DNANetanyahu spins operation into Armageddon-style mission

The IDF’s initial assessment that it would take a month to complete the operation could well turn out to be too optimistic. The identification of the tunnels is proceeding at the planned pace, but it is possible that the destruction of their routes will take longer than originally estimated. The IDF’s assessment was that Hezbollah would avoid a direct military response, as long as the tunnels were located and destroyed inside Israeli territory and as long as the group sustained no casualties as a result of Israeli operations.

The main risk at the moment concerns the spilling over of local incidents into a broader escalation, even without the parties aiming for that. Last Saturday, an IDF engineering force opened fire at three suspicious figures, apparently Hezbollah lookouts, who came close to the area where the IDF is working along the border.

Along with the location and destruction of the tunnels, Israel also wants to take advantage of the discovery and the publicity for two goals: Leveraging it for the public relations war against Hezbollah in the international arena, and speeding up the construction of the new wall at disputed points along the border, in the area of Manara and Misgav Am in the east, and east of Rosh Hanikra in the west.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot met on Sunday in his office in the Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv with the commander of UNIFIL in southern Lebanon, Italian Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col. Eisenkot told him that the digging of the tunnels is a violation of UN Security Council resolution 1701, which was passed at the end of the Second Lebanon War.

The IDF has prepared an intelligence file on every tunnel, which includes data “incriminating” Hezbollah in violating the UN resolution. Israel will try to use the violations by Hezbollah as justification for continuing the work on building the wall, which so far have been conducted at a slow pace in disputed areas, partly out of a fear of a harsh response by Hezbollah.

At a time when a debate is being conducted in Israel over the importance of the discovery of the tunnels, and claims are being made that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF have inflated the important intelligence revelation into an “operation” whose practical significance is limited, Eisenkot actually attributes great importance to it. In closed discussions, Eisenkot describes the tunnels as the secret, missing component in Hezbollah’s plan of attack along the border when a war breaks out.

In his opinion, moving dozens and even hundreds of soldiers through them would have caused greater damage than that expected from the dozens of precision missiles that, in his assessment, are in the hands of Hezbollah today. (The Israeli effort to prevent the smuggling of such precision weaponry from Syria to Lebanon has so far prevented the accumulation of a larger number of such missiles.)

UNIFIL vehicles patrol next to the concrete border wall separating Lebanon and Israel, December 9, 2018.
AFP

Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah is avoiding, for now, any public comment on the discovery of the tunnels. Over the weekend, Nasrallah’s deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem, who Israel is not at all certain was in on the secret of digging the tunnels, said that Hezbollah has rockets capable of hitting any place in Israel – a factual statement, even if it says nothing new.

The president of Lebanon, Saad el-Din al-Hariri, reiterated his country’s commitment to Resolution 1701, but in the meantime, he has not visited the area of the border with Israel and has not commented on the crisis. Hariri canceled a planned visit to France because of the “security situation” (the wave of protests in France), without even mentioning the new security situation developing along its southern border.

Israel’s PR war

The public relations war that Israel has been fighting against Hezbollah and the Lebanese government is part of an ongoing diplomatic effort whose goal is to constrain Hezbollah’s and Iran’s moves on Israel’s northern front. Netanyahu’s visit to Metula last week, and the large number of Israeli statements about the tunnel revelations, complete the process whose objective is to deter Hezbollah and prevent the upgrading of its military capabilities.

The battle over legitimacy, including the aspects of international law involved, will assume a large place in any war that could break out in Lebanon in the future. In October, the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, a Washington, D.C. based pro-Israel think tank that brings together retired senior American defense officials and officers, released a detailed report on this question. Three former U.S. generals visited and toured Israel to prepare the report, and met with senior government officials, officers on the IDF General Staff and in the Military Advocate General unit.

The authors of the report, entitled “Israel’s Next Northern War: Operational and Legal Challenges,” say that if a war breaks out in the north, it will not be similar at all to the conflicts Israel has experienced in the past. They expect such a war to have unprecedented amounts of destruction and casualties, including deaths, on both sides. The authors say that Hezbollah’s military capabilities have improved greatly after seven years in which its soldiers took part in the civil war in Syria. But Hezbollah has no illusions it can defeat the IDF on the battlefield. Its goal is to achieve a political victory, states the report.

Hezbollah plans on achieving this victory by intentionally risking the lives of Lebanese civilians (whom Hezbollah uses frequently as “human shields”), manipulation of the narrative about the events of the war and exploitation of the mistakes of the international community in understanding the laws of war. The JINSA authors say Hezbollah and Iran will strive to present Israel during the war as “an immoral murderer of civilians.” Their goal will be to damage Israel’s international legitimacy to continue to fight, before the IDF can translate its military advantage into a victory on the battlefield.

The report says the next war in the north will not be conducted only with tanks and missiles – it will also be a war of information, which will be decided by international public opinion, no less than on the battlefield. They say that Israel often makes more effort than necessary according to international law to protect the lives of enemy civilians. But the authors say that in real time, Israel hesitates and lags in presenting the information that could well prove its claims. The result, during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in 2014, is that Israel lost the information war to its enemies.