by Yoav Limor
Israeli soldiers near the
border with Lebanon, Tuesday
Exposing Hezbollah's terror tunnels under the Israel-Lebanon border means Israel faces an operational dilemma going forward
This round seems to go to Israel, but
things are far from over. Hezbollah may have lost a significant
strategic asset but it is far from giving up, and this setback will not
be what decides the next military campaign. In fact, this is not even a
tie-breaker – at most this is another important marker in a long line
of events that date back to the early 1980s, which has no end in
From the IDF's point of view, Operation
Northern Shield is just that – a full-scale operation in every respect,
from intelligence gathering and employing engineering technology, to
the deployment on the ground and dealing with any military, diplomatic
and operational implications; all seeking to inflict maximum damage on
Hezbollah and create maximum leverage for Israel, and all flawlessly
executed thus far.
Keeping things in perspective is important,
and calling military engineering activities on the Israeli side of the
border an "operation" may be a bit of a stretch – to Israeli ears, the
word "operation" conjures up images of something daring and heroic,
not those of bulldozers excavating a tunnel – but the attempts by
politicians to dwarf the IDF's achievement are nonetheless very
Reuters - An IDF bulldozer digs near the Israel-Lebanon border, Tuesday
One may criticize the broader contexts of
the operation, from the decision to avoid a more severe response to the
violence in Gaza to the decision not to neutralize the tunnels' end on
Lebanese soil, but the contempt for the operation itself was odd, and
proved that in 2018 Israel, even matters of security are all about
Hezbollah's tunnel project can be traced
back to 2014. Reeling from Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Hamas
decided to accelerate its terror tunnels' project. The information
gathered by them was eventually handed over to Hezbollah – through
Iran, no doubt – which decided to begin a tunneling project of its own.
The IDF understood the challenge and
especially its lacking ability to meet it. When IDF Chief of Staff Lt.
Gen. Gadi Eizenkot took office in February 2015, he made the tunnel
threat a top priority and set up technological-intelligence-operational
teams to find a holistic solution to the problem.
It is likely that Eizenkot's insistence to
launch Operation Northern Shield at this time despite the
recommendations of several General Staff officers, stemmed from his
desire to see this through and not leave the problem for his successor,
Aviv Kochavi, who will take office in mid-January.
At the time, the IDF's decision to form a
special task force to tackle the tunnel issue was oblivious to the fact
that Hezbollah had embarked on a tunneling project near the
Lebanon-Israel border. Even within the Shiite terrorist group, the
project was top secret and only a handful of senior officials knew
about it. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah wanted to keep the
information on a need-to-know basis precisely to avoid the kind of
intelligence breach that stunned the group this week.
The military began gathering actionable
intelligence on Hezbollah tunneling project two years ago. The village
of Kafr Kila in south Lebanon, where the IDF identified digging
operations, was placed under 24/7 surveillance, revealing the slow but
steady progress made by Hezbollah.
And slow and steady progress it was: Unlike
in Gaza, the ground near the northern border is rocky and tough, not
sandy and yielding. This allowed Hezbollah maximum progress of about
six feet a week, which in turn, allowed the IDF's seismic detection
systems time to pinpoint the areas where the excavation took place.
The harsh terrain also explains the nature
of Hezbollah's tunnels, which are straighter and shorter than their
Gazan cousins. Their advantage lies with the fact that, being carved
out of solid rock and not sand, like in Gaza, Hezbollah's tunnels did
not require any cement lining.
The fact that Hezbollah had no idea that
Israel had exposed its secret project made it possible for the IDF to
focus its activities and reach the point where it could launch a
surprise countertunnel operation and announce it had mapped Hezbollah's
grid of tunnels in its entirety.
This was a dramatic statement not only
because of the blow it dealt Hezbollah, but also because it allowed the
military to pinpoint the operation to neutralize and destroy the
tunnels instead of spending months on a futile search along the
Prudence must prevail
The suggested timetable for Operation
Northern Shield ran counter to the escalation in Gaza. The IDF
consistently claims that it can take on two sectors simultaneously, but
when push came to shove, the northern sector was prioritized. This
decision stemmed not only from the desire to effectively focus the
military effort but also from a consensus between Eizenkot and Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that tensions in Gaza were manageable even
without a full-scale military campaign that would do little to resolve
the enclave's problems.
Members of the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet
were red in on the IDF's intelligence on Nov. 7 and were asked to
greenlight a countertunnel operation on the Israel-Lebanon border at a
time of the military's choosing.
Four days later, IDF special forces embarked on a covert mission in Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, which went awry and triggered one of the worst border flare-ups the south has seen since 2014.
Emotions in Israel ran high and the public and ministers alike
demanded something be done about Gaza "right now," but Netanyahu and
Eizenkot did not falter, insisting in a Nov. 13 cabinet meeting that
the northern sector must remain the top priority.
The cabinet agreed, with the exception of then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned
in protest, triggering political turmoil that nearly toppled the
government. Netanyahu hinted at "something big" brewing in the north
and called on all coalition partners to act responsibly in what he
called a "highly sensitive time, security-wise."
Incidentally, the timing of the operation
was not chosen solely over military considerations: The days leading up
to it were clouded by a well-founded suspicion that the plans were
leaked to the media by a senior politician, and there was concern that
Hezbollah will learn of them and Israel would lose the element of
The disappointment by some in Israel may
have stemmed from the fact that the expectation for a spectacular
strike on Lebanese soil gave way to clouds of dust stirred up by
bulldozers and rather exaggerated media hype. It is doubtful, however,
that Hezbollah shares this disappointment – it lost a valuable
strategic asset, in which much thought, resources and efforts were
We should not make light of this. Hezbollah
is plagued by a serious economic crisis that is expected to worsen in
2019 given the impact of new U.S. sanctions in Iran, which is expected
to slash its proxy's budget.
Unlike Hezbollah's armament efforts, which
can be presented as a defensive measure, cross-border tunnels that
snake into Israeli territory are a clearly offensive move that exposes
its aggression. Worse still, the tunnel enterprise refutes Hezbollah's
claims that it has no present south of the Litani, as stipulated in
Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 Second Lebanon
Exposing Hezbollah's tunnels has made it
abundantly clear to everyone, especially to the U.N. peacekeeping force
stationed in Lebanon – which for the past few years has insisted it
sees no evil, hears no evil and speaks no evil with respect to the
Shiite terrorist group – that Hezbollah has pulled the wool over
Still, Israel would be wise not to expect
the U.N. to revise Resolution 1701. The U.S. will likely support
such revisions, but Russia will veto such a move.
The tunnels' exposure is, however, a golden
opportunity for Israel to call out Hezbollah on the international
stage, as they are a unique public diplomacy asset that illustrates
clearly what Israel has been saying about Hezbollah's extensive web of
lies, its operational plans and its ties to Iran.
This may also explain why Hezbollah has
remained mum. A speechless Nasrallah is a rarity but the organization
has been stunned silent by Israel's feat, and its officials will likely
prefer to keep a low profile until the dust settles.
Leverage is key
Hezbollah is busy licking its wounds and
performing damage control. It is unclear to it what Israel knows, and
how seriously it has been compromised from intelligence and operational
standpoints. Hezbollah's investigation will probably lead to Tehran,
whose officials were co-conspirators to the project. At some point,
Hezbollah will also have to retaliate, both because it is in
Nasrallah's nature and because it wants to keep Israel deterred.
The first test of deterrence will present
itself after Israel will expose all the tunnels and turn its attention
to their destruction. The IDF will have to decide whether to destroy
only the parts that infringe on Israeli territory or step over the
border and eliminate their origins in Lebanon as well. This means
infringing on Lebanese sovereignty, which Hezbollah could use as a
pretext to respond.
For now, Israel is being extremely careful
about infringing on Lebanese sovereignty. The guidelines are clear: Do
not cross the Blue Line, i.e., the border demarcation between Lebanon
and Israel set by the U.N. This is a prudent decision, but it raises an
important question: If Israel is so concerned about stepping only a
few hundred feet into Lebanese territory to destroy terror tunnels
infringing on its own sovereignty, how does it plan to destroy the
precision-missile production facilities Hezbollah is trying to build in
This dilemma will be the next chief of
staff's to resolve, and he will have to do so against the backdrop of
Iran's continued attempts to do everything in its power to upgrade
Operation Northern Shield will take several
weeks. The main effort now is an engineering one and about 200
reservists, experts in their field, have been called up for it. The
military's Commando Brigade is securing the work and not by chance, as
its presence on the border will allow the IDF to mount a rapid response
to any flare-up if need be. The tactical threat is palpable and all it
would take is a sniping attempt by Hezbollah, for example, to trigger a
It is doubtful the Hezbollah will do that.
The tunnels were a strategic asset but their strength lies in the (now
defunct) element of surprise, while Hezbollah's real strength lies
with its sizeable missile arsenal and tens of thousands of operatives.
In other words, the fact that Hezbollah lost its tunnels will do
little to dramatically change the course of the next war. Hezbollah is a
mini-army of highly motivated terrorists, and it can still cross the
border relatively easy.
Meanwhile, Israel will try to leverage its
military achievement into a diplomatic one not only in Washington but
in other capitals as well, especially Paris, which wields significant
clout in Beirut, but also in London and Moscow. After all, small
victories are still victories.
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