by News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
Israeli military on high alert as Operation Northern Shield aims to neutralize multiple terror tunnels running under the Israel-Lebanon border
An IDF bulldozer digs near the Israel-Lebanon border, Tuesday
The Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday launched an operation to expose and neutralize cross-border terror tunnels dug by Hezbollah under the Israel-Lebanon security fence. The military did not disclose how many tunnels snake into Israeli territory from Lebanon or how long the operation would last.
In a statement, the military stressed that the operation, code-named "Northern Shield," was underway on the Israeli side of the border. The military added that with the exception of a few hundred feet near the security fence, which were declared a restricted military zone, the residents of the Israeli communities near the border could maintain their usual daily routine.
Video: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
The operation comes against the backdrop of an urgent meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels Monday, where the two discussed "regional developments."
Israeli media reported that Netanyahu was poised to ask Pompeo for the United States' support in the event of an Israeli strike on Hezbollah infrastructure in Lebanon.
The Prime Minister's Office said the two discussed ways to "work together to curb Iranian aggression in the region – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere," as well as the joint effort "to achieve peace and security for all."
Later on Tuesday, Netanyahu issued a statement saying, "This morning, the IDF launched Operation Northern Shield with aim of exposing and neutralizing cross-border terror tunnels from Lebanon. We are proud of IDF officers and soldiers who carry out these complex missions and for the operational success noted so far."
"Those who try to harm the State of Israel will be made to pay a heavy price," the statement continued. "We are operating with determination in all sectors and we will continue to launch overt and covert operations to ensure Israel's security."
A senior political source told Israel Hayom that members of the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet were barred from commenting on the operation in the media.
According to defense officials privy to the issue, Operation Northern Shield was launched after lengthy overnight consultations between IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and senior defense officials.
Military vehicles are seen from the village of Kafr Kila, in south Lebanon, Tuesday
Israel views the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its vast arsenal of some 150,000 projectiles as a major threat.
Bracing for a potential border flare-up, the military has bolstered deployment along the northern frontier, including air defense systems as well as regular and special forces.
'A blatant violation of U.N. resolutions'
In a press briefing, IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis offered more details on the operation.
"The IDF first identified Hezbollah efforts to dig tunnels near the border in 2006. These efforts increased after the [Second Lebanon] War [in 2006], and in 2012, we learned of a plan that [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah refers to as the 'plan to conquer the Galilee,' which led us to believe that the offensive tunnels were the surprise element in this scheme.
"In 2013, the IDF examined several indicators for the existence of tunnels near the northern border and ruled it out given their [Hezbollah's] technological capabilities," he said.
"In October 2014, after Operation Protective Edge [in Gaza], a special technological-intelligence team was set up in the Northern Command and tasked with exposing Hezbollah's tunnel enterprise. The team worked for four years, compiling the intelligence that culminated with today's operation."
According to Manelis, "Over the years, various operational technologies from other sectors were deployed along the Blue Line [the border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel set by the U.N.] and allowed Military Intelligence to provide the Combat Engineering Corps with better information on which to base and launch the operation and neutralize the tunnels. Then, when the operational conditions presented themselves, the IDF launched Operation Northern Shield."
Eyal Margolin / JINI
The IDF did not disclose how many tunnels snake into Israeli territory from Lebanon or how long the operation would last
Hezbollah's cross-border tunnels "are a blatant violation of Israeli sovereignty and of U.N. Resolution 1701," he continued. "The tunnels are built on Lebanese soil and pose a threat to both the Lebanese population and Lebanon itself. The IDF holds the Lebanese government responsible for everything that happens on its side of the Blue Line.
"The fact that Hezbollah is building tunnels under Israeli surveillance proves that the Lebanese army has no control on the ground and that Hezbollah dominates south Lebanon and uses Iranian money and knowledge to do so."
He further said that IDF deployment in the northern sector has been increased and that "we are ready for any development. Nevertheless, there are no special instructions for the area's residents. Local mayors have and are being kept abreast of the necessary developments," he said.
Manelis noted that the IDF was operating under the assumption that Hezbollah was monitoring its progress.
"We are on high alert and if needed – we know what to do. The operation was launched at this time because the operational conditions are right and we have the technological abilities at our disposal."
He stressed that "the tunnels pose no threat to the Israeli public – we're dealing with them before they can become a threat. We are determined to make sure this doesn’t pose a threat to the border-adjacent communities."
Commenting on the operation, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon tweeted, "Hezbollah attack tunnels crossing from Lebanon into Israel is a blatant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, it is an act of aggression. Israel will do its utmost to protect its citizens and its territory against such aggression."
Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former head of the Military Intelligence's Research Division noted that Operation Northern Shield may prompt a security escalation on the border.
The IDF, he said, has humiliated Hezbollah, and while the Shiite terrorist group has not reacted thus far, the IDF must remain alert.
According to Kuperwasser, while the operation is being carried out in Israeli territory, it concerns infrastructure that Hezbollah has spent years developing, thus exposing its intelligence vulnerabilities and increasing the potential for retaliation that could result in a border flare-up.
Sivan Yechieli, head of the Forum of Frontline Communities in the North, told Israel Hayom that the residents were not surprised by the tunnels' discovery.
"Residents in the area have been very concerned about this issue for years, and they remain concerned," he said.
"We were always told that the IDF had no knowledge of existing terror tunnels in the area, and it's clear to me that once the IDF had the intelligence and the technological ability to identify tunnels, the operation was launched."
"Israel cannot tolerate a violation of its sovereignty in the north," he added. "Clearly, a threat of this nature requires a response. We have every faith in the military."
News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
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