Netanyahu Pushes Military Not to Label Hezbollah Tunnel Effort 'Operation'

Army officials disagree, saying definition grants army required resources ■ Sources: PM's request based on notion that tensions in the north would not help his reelection bid

Israeli army operations to destroy Hezbollah tunnels, December 2018.
RONEN ZVULUN/Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked defense officials to declare an end to Operation Northern Shield but continue searching for Hezbollah attack tunnels on a routine basis, sources involved in the discussions said.

But senior defense sources say it would be wrong to downgrade the project to routine security-work status. They say the concentrated effort should last for as long as necessary to curtail the threat.

>> Read more: Israel gears up for elections: Netanyahu’s strongest advantage over his challengers | Analysis ■ Attack tunnels are only a prelude to the real Hezbollah threat ■ 'Hezbollah's Operation Barbarossa': How army chief pushed Netanyahu to go after the tunnels

One source said the project would fare better in mustering resources and funds if it kept its definition as an ongoing operation.

Sources said any decision to end the operation now would be based on the notion that any tensions in the north would not help the prime minister’s reelection bid. They said that framing the operation as one of the most sensitive for Israel’s security may prove an asset for Netanyahu and his Likud party at the polls.

In a tour of the area Tuesday by members of the security cabinet, Netanyahu said “this operation is mostly behind us.” Speaking to Likud Knesset members Monday, he said: “We are about to end the disarmament of the tunnels that Hezbollah has invested so much in.” Likud lawmakers, among them, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, repeated this message in media interviews Tuesday.

Haaretz Weekly podcast, Episode 9Haaretz

The army is trying to delay any official ending of the operation for as long as possible, while stressing its great significance in the media.

But political sources at security briefings said the army’s objections to ending the operation aren’t based totally on operational reasons, because there is no real difference between calling it an operation or routine security.

They said the detection of tunnels is solely an engineering operation and that all intelligence preparations show that Hezbollah has accepted the destruction of the tunnels and has no desire to act against Israel.

The sources said the army is inflating the significance and complexity of the operation because army chief Gadi Eisenkot wants to keep the focus and political pressure away from the Gaza front.

One source said the army aims to continue operating under the rubric of an “operation” because the army was loath to see the downgrading of Operation Northern Shield – once touted as a complicated and sensitive operation – to just “routine” security work.