Analysis

The Battle Over the Timing of Israel's Operation Against Hezbollah Tunnels

One version says Netanyahu and army chief Eisenkot were wary of a large-scale operation in Gaza, so they provided a relatively safe alternative, but less essential, in the north

The Israel-Lebanon border.
Gil Eliyahu

Tuesday’s news about Israel launching an operation to demolish cross-border tunnel Hezbollah built from Lebanon into Israel puts in new light Avigdor Lieberman’s decision to step down as defense minister in the middle of last month. In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on November 18, following Lieberman’s departure and Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s demand for the defense portfolio, the prime minister said that the country was facing a period of security challenges – and that a “sacrifice” would be required of the public.

Does northern op mean war?Haaretz Weekly

Lieberman played down Netanyahu’s remarks, and apparently so did the Habayit Hayehudi ministers, who decided the next day to remain in the government and weren’t persuaded by the talk of a danger of war.

>> Israel robs Hezbollah of major offensive asset | Analysis ■ Seven insights into operation against Hezbollah tunnels | Explained ■ Has the Israel; become the latest prop in Netanyahu's battle for survival? | Analysis 

Is Operation Northern Shield major or minor? Apparently neither. But on Tuesday someone energetically briefed journalists on the events of the past few months. According to that version, there’s a close link between the latest developments in Gaza and in the north. Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, it is claimed, have exaggerated the tunnel threat in the north as way to postpone necessary action in Gaza.

People involved in the discussions told Haaretz that the security cabinet and a few other forums have been receiving intelligence updates on the tunnels in the north in recent months. On November 7, the engineering operation on the Lebanese border came up for discussion in the security cabinet, which voted to approve it, with the exception of one minister, Lieberman. The defense minister believed that a ground operation in Gaza was more urgent.

The engineering operation in the north was to begin a week later. But on the night of November 11, Israeli special forces near Khan Yunis in Gaza got into trouble and a lieutenant colonel was killed.

The next day the Palestinians responded with a barrage of 500 rockets and mortar shells. On November 13, the security cabinet held a dramatic meeting where it was decided to consent to Egyptian efforts toward a cease-fire and go back to seeking an agreement with Hamas. On November 14, Lieberman announced his resignation and sharply criticized what he described as defeatist Israeli policy in Gaza.

In the security cabinet meeting of November 13, Eisenkot led the argument against a ground operation in Gaza, backed by Netanyahu (some would say the prime minister did so at a rather low pitch). Some of the ministers recall that the tunnel issue in the north was mentioned briefly.

But as far as is known, this wasn’t the main argument. The main reason for the decision to stop was that Netanyahu and Eisenkot were against an operation in Gaza and the army didn’t have enough quality targets for an assault because the escalation didn’t begin with a surprise Israeli move and Hamas leaders had already hidden deep underground.

Netanyahu and Eisenkot on December 4, 2018

The argument that comes up in retrospect is that Netanyahu and Eisenkot were leery about a Gaza operation, so they provided a relatively safe operation, but less essential, in the north. Such an operation serves the prime minister in two ways: It distracts the public’s attention only two days after the police recommended indicting him in the Bezeq-Walla case, and it once again presents him as an uber-statesman, the only politician who can meet the complex and changing challenges that Israel faces in the region.

Also, Eisenkot gets his operation, a moment before his term ends on January 15. The chief of staff thus clears his desk of the tunnel problem in the north, though his successor, Aviv Kochavi, will apparently have to address the threat from Gaza and the developing crisis around the Iranian missile factories in Lebanon.

This is also the source of the charges, coming from both the right and left, of a PR operation that needlessly frightens the public. The army is responding by releasing details on the threat (the tunnel uncovered extended 40 meters [131 feet] into Israel, under the bicycle trail in Metula).

But it seems the whole discussion is being held based on who’s for Netanyahu and who’s against him. One can only guess what will happen if he decides to stay on as prime minister and defense minister if he’s indicted in the corruption cases against him.

North versus south

Netanyahu’s trip to Brussels apparently had two components: coordinating with the Americans regarding action against the tunnels in the north, and conveying another sharp warning to the Lebanese government – try to rein in Hezbollah and avoid an escalation on the border.

The question now preoccupying Israel’s leaders is how Iran will respond and whether it will seek a way to make Israel pay, perhaps on another border, for thwarting its plans. The tunnel project is a costly, secret matter of critical importance to Iran and Hezbollah. Clearly the Iranians were in the picture, and part of the insights relied on know-how gained by Hamas in its Gaza tunnels over the past decade.

The IDF made a technological and intelligence breakthrough in locating the Gaza tunnels about a year ago, and since then has found and demolished 17 attack tunnels on both sides of the border fence. But this success also gradually contributed to the deterioration with Hamas and spurred the group to heat things up at the fence via the March of the Return starting on March 30.

On the northern border, digging tunnels, like discovering them, is an incomparably tougher task. The IDF shared three key details Tuesday: The realization in 2012 that when Hezbollah talks about a plan to “conquer the Galilee” this includes a surprise attack through tunnels, the establishment in 2014 of a special team to study the problem, and frequent efforts to discover tunnels in recent years.

The army doesn’t care how many years passed between the time the tunnels were dug and when they were discovered (the tunnel made public Tuesday was dug over two years). Nor does it say whether it suspects there are more tunnels and whether this operation should have been launched a few months ago.

Still, a significant security challenge has been uncovered that will require close management by Netanyahu, Eisenkot and the head of the Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick. The effort to find more tunnels is expected to take weeks, if not months.

And the tunnels aren’t the only urgent issue. Israel is also warning about Iran’s plan to establish factories in Lebanon to produce precision weapons – and is getting used to the change dictated by Russia’s presence in the region. Moscow has largely closed the skies over Syria to offensive action by the IAF but has forced Iran to cut back on its weapons-smuggling convoys.