Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday evening that the Israeli military's operation to destroy cross-border tunnels constructed by Hezbollah "will continue until all its objectives are reached."
"This is not a limited operation, it is a broad and ongoing operation," Netanyahu said, speaking alongside IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot at the IDF's headquarters in Tel Aviv.
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Netanyahu said Hezbollah's intention was to infiltrate into Israeli territory, with the single purpose "to attack and murder innocent Israeli men, women and children." The prime minister added that the tunnels are "part of a broader regional operation led by Iran."
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"This tunnel will not achieve its goal, and the same goes for the rest of the terror tunnels," Netanyahu declared. "We neutralized numerous terror tunnels from Gaza and we will complete the work there too. For years, Hezbollah and Hamas spent enormous sums in building the tunnels. We are dismantling this weapon."
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Netanyahu thanked Eisenkot and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, adding: "The members of the security cabinet were full partners in the decision, they are being updated all the time."
Eisenkot estimated the operation would last several weeks, saying it initiated "before the tunnel threat became direct and immediate for residents of the north and Israeli army bases."
He added that the Israeli army possesses the plans for Hezbollah's "defensive measures and residents of the north can feel safe. We spoke to regional council and municipality heads before the operation began. I told them to continue as usual."
The Israeli military launched the operation, dubbed Northern Shield, on Monday night. Netanyahu said earlier 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 decisively and responsibly on all fronts simultaneously. We will continue with further actions – public and clandestine – in order to safeguard the security of Israel."
The development came hours after Netanyahu met U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels, Belgium on Monday evening. 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 military 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.
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.
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.