The Israeli military launched an operation Monday night to destroy cross-border tunnels constructed by Hezbollah, crossing the Lebanon border into Israel.
The Israel Defense Force announced the discovery of the tunnels on Tuesday morning, saying it has started destroying them, dubbing the operation Northern Shield.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels, Belgium on Monday. The two discussed ways to "work together to block Iranian agression in the region - in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon." The heads of the Mossad and the National Security Council, as well as Netanyahu's military secretary, also attended the meeting.
The military said it has been aware since 2006 that Hezbollah was trying to construct attack tunnels stretching from Lebanon into Israel at several points along the border. Since then, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has spoken of a plan to take over parts of the Galilee, in northern Israel, in a future conflict.
Nasrallah is expected to give a speech in Lebanon on Tuesday evening in response to the launch of the operation.
The miltiary said it was assessing the situation to gauge Hezbollah's possible reaction to the destruction of the tunnels. The army warned farmers not to approach the border.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that there had already been "operational successes" in the operation. "Whoever tries to harm the State of Israel will pay a heavy price," Netanyahu said in a statement, adding that Israel "is operating divisively and responsibly on all fronts simultaneously. We will continue with further actions – public and clandestine – in order to safeguard the security of Israel."
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New perspective to political crisis
The revelation of Operation Northern Shield brings new perspective to the security cabinet debates surrounding the cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza. Now we can say that the tunnels in the north were among the considerations in the security cabinet meeting where the ministers decided not to launch a full-scale operation in Gaza following a botched Israeli military operation there and the firing of some 500 rockets from Gaza at Israel.
Most of the ministers had agreed, in accordance with the defense establishment's position, that an offensive in Gaza was not appropriate at the time, out of fear of escalation on two fronts. Lieberman, who resigned his post as defense minister following the cease-fire announcement, disagreed with the assessment that the northern front required immediate action. He insisted that the situation in Gaza was more pressing.
Several ministers have criticized Netanyahu for using classified information about the tunnels and the operation to justify delaying elections. According to them, the level of the threat did not justify a delay in dissolving the coalition.
Since the revelation of the operation on Tuesday, most of the ministers support the decision for a cease-fire in Gaza. The prime minister's bureau instructed ministers not to give interviews for fear of complicating the situation with Hezbollah. When Netanyahu spoke of security threats that he could not disclose in November, it can be assumed that the northern front was one of the threats.
Not an immediate threat
The construction of the tunnels is a violation of UN Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War, IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis told Army Radio Tuesday.
"We've been preparing for this morning for a very long time," Manelis said.
"I don't want to talk about the number [of tunnels], those details will stay classified," said Manelis, "It suffices to say that it is a small number. Work has started near Metullah, and in the coming days the operation will expand to other sections of the homefront."
Manelis added that the tunnels did not constitute an immediate threat and they were still unfinished.
In 2013, the military discovered that Hezbollah was attempting to begin construction of the tunnels but could not locate any. In 2014, the military formed a special team to locate these tunnels, and in 2015 it began building a barrier along the Lebanese border. During this time, the military developed tunnel-locating technology.
"The fact that Hezbollah has tunnels crossing the border into Israeli territory is proof of a flagrant violation of Israeli sovreignty," Manelis said. "We see this as a very serious situation that hurts Lebanon and the citizens of Lebanon, and we hold the Lebanese government accountable. We have indisputable proof that the Lebanese government is not in control of their border. Iranian money is behind these tunnels."
According to Manelis, Israeli troops along the border have been reinforced, "We are in full control of the situation and are determined to remove the underground Hezbollah threat from the northern border. The tunnels do cross into Israeli territory, but the work on them was not complete."
Since 2013, residents in the north have reported hearing sounds of digging emanating from under the ground. Manelis told army radio that each report had been investigated, yet the army maintained that no tunnels had been found under the northern border.
The army has long been aware of Hezbollah's intention to build tunnels, yet it is unclear at what point they discovered the tunnels that are currently being destroyed.