by Lilach Shoval, Associated Press and Israel Hayom Staff
Construction of 80-mile wall along Israel's northern border stokes tensions as Lebanon claims the project infringes on its sovereignty
An Israeli soldier near the wall being built on Israel's northern border
Israel is building a massive wall along its northern border, saying the barrier is needed to protect nearby communities from Hezbollah attacks, but the project has raised tensions with Lebanon, which fears the wall will encroach on its territory.
The Israeli military insists the entire barrier is being constructed in Israeli territory, and UNIFIL – the U.N. peacekeeping force in the area – agrees.
But Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah has never fully accepted the border, and a senior Israeli military official stressed the need for the wall, saying that while Israeli intelligence closely monitors Hezbollah, "we are prepared for the possibility that they will surprise us."
"Borders, as the saying goes, will forever be breached. They [Hezbollah] may mark certain achievements but it won't be anything as big as they are planning. Wherever it happens, a Hezbollah force that infiltrates Israel won't get out alive," he said.
Hezbollah has been heavily involved in the seven-year-long Syrian civil war, sending thousands of operatives to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces. With the conflict in Syria waning, Israel is wary of renewed hostilities with Hezbollah.
Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon waged war in 2006, sparked by a deadly cross-border raid in which Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and abducted two others, whose remains were returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange two years later.
Twelve years on, Hezbollah is believed to have an even larger and more sophisticated arsenal of rockets that pose a threat to all of Israel's territory.
Brig. Gen. Eran Ofir, the commander in charge of Israel's border wall projects, said around 7 miles of the 80-mile barrier has been built. Most of it comprises a 30-foot high concrete wall topped by steel mesh and lined with a grid of sophisticated sensors and advanced surveillance systems. Steel fencing replaces the concrete in especially rugged areas.
The $450 million project is slated for completion in two years.
Lebanese soldiers routinely monitor the construction's progress from a guard post on the opposite side of the Blue Line, which was demarcated by the U.N. after Israeli forces withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 following an 18-year military campaign.
An IDF official said Israel has noted a troubling rise in "very close cooperation between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah" near the Israeli border in the past year. He said the IDF expects even more Hezbollah fighters to arrive in the area after the Syrian war ends.
Israel and Lebanon technically remain at war.
The U.N. Security Council warned last month that violations of the cease-fire agreement between Lebanon and Israel could lead to fresh conflict.
Lebanon's top security body earlier this year described the planned border wall as an "aggression" against it.
"This wall, if it is built, will be considered an aggression against Lebanon," it said in a statement. "The Higher Defense Council has given instructions to confront this aggression to prevent Israel from building this so-called wall barrier on Lebanese territory."
Maj. Tomer Gilad, Israel's liaison officer with UNIFIL, said monthly meetings are held with the Lebanese military and U.N. officials to coordinate the barrier's construction.
"Even for the past year before we started this construction, we've coordinated this activity with UNIFIL, and through UNIFIL with the Lebanese Armed Forces. We've alerted them of our intention to construct this defensive mechanism," Gilad told reporters.
Thus far, construction has proceeded "very calmly with the participation on all sides to maintain stability," he said. "We expect UNIFIL and the Lebanese army to maintain stability over here throughout this construction because this project is a stabilizing measure."
UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said that since construction began in February, all the building work has been south of the Blue Line and away from sensitive areas.
Lilach Shoval, Associated Press and Israel Hayom Staff
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