Israel Faces More Formidable Hezbollah Dug in From Lebanon

(Bloomberg) -- The bulldozers growling as soldiers sealed a tunnel that crossed beneath Lebanon’s border into Israel provided the kind of prop Benjamin Netanyahu loves. The Israeli prime minister told diplomats who’d braved fierce rains that Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, was waiting for just such a foggy day to send attack squads into his country.

“Hezbollah wants to order several battalions into our territory with the aim of isolating communities, cities or kibbutzes, then go on a killing and kidnapping spree,” he said.

Israel Faces More Formidable Hezbollah Dug in From Lebanon

The visit was a retort to one weeks earlier by Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, whose party is in a political alliance with Hezbollah. Bassil brought diplomats to three sites in Beirut where Netanyahu had said Hezbollah was hiding missile-upgrade facilities. Nothing to see here, Bassil told his guests -- no launchpads and no secret facilities.

Media Posturing

The rival visits showed how the two sides are trying to win over international opinion as the prospect of another conflict rises. In the previous round of fighting in 2006, a Hezbollah raid into Israel sparked a monthlong war in which some 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon and 165 in Israel.

Another war is likely to be much more costly for all sides.

Read more: All about Hezbollah -- a QuickTake explainer

That’s because Hezbollah has used the intervening period to fortify one of the world’s most powerful militias, gaining strength through its hold over Lebanese politics, an influx of fighters battle-hardened from Syria’s civil war, and an arsenal that Israel says has been boosted 10-fold to about 150,000 missiles.

The Israeli army says its mission is focused for now on closing tunnels Hezbollah has burrowed into its territory. Lebanese President Michel Aoun said Tuesday the U.S. relayed a message from Israel that it has no aggressive intentions.

But while Israel has contained the operation within its borders so far, it may be a preamble to a larger showdown over Hezbollah’s missile program -- a key worry for Netanyahu as Iran and its proxy dig in on Israel’s northern doorstep.

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said early on that his government didn’t want Israel’s anti-tunnel operation to “constitute a reason for any escalation.”

But Israel sees its two foes as having become exponentially more threatening in the course of Syria’s civil war. The chaos of that conflict has allowed Iran to more easily transfer weapons to Hezbollah through Syria, and Iran has advisers, fighters and military hardware on the ground there, where it backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

On Monday, Netanyahu said the exposure of the tunnels was designed in part to press for tougher international sanctions on both Hezbollah and Iran.

UNIFIL, the United Nations force charged with keeping armed fighters out of southern Lebanon, has confirmed the existence of the first two tunnels, calling them “a serious matter.” The Israeli army said Tuesday it had exposed a third tunnel and expects to uncover more.

Israel Faces More Formidable Hezbollah Dug in From Lebanon

Hezbollah is both stretched and immeasurably strengthened since the last war. It’s still operating in Syria, where it has lost almost 1,700 fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. But its ranks have also swelled.

Israel says it’s struck Hezbollah-bound arms convoys more than 200 times in recent years, limiting the group’s ability to upgrade its arsenal with precision missiles. By taking diplomats to see the tunnel, Netanyahu was seeking to build support in case Israel attacks missile facilities later, officials said on condition of anonymity to discuss policy.

Missile Facilities

The tunnels are the tip of the iceberg for Hezbollah, whose underground missile facilities are “much more hazardous,” said Michael Oren, Israel’s deputy minister for public diplomacy. “Hezbollah’s ability to hit any target in the State of Israel, whether it be our airport or oil refinery or any strategic target, poses an almost existential threat to our country.”

Hezbollah hasn’t responded to the allegations of Beirut weapons factories, but its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said it possesses precision missiles that can hit every part of Israel. Nasrallah’s threat to conquer Israeli border towns prompted Israel to begin its anti-tunnel search in 2015.

According to Israeli military officials and analysts, Hezbollah wants to seize Israeli towns at the start of a future war -- even temporarily -- to strike a psychological blow.

Israeli officials have sought to portray the tunnel discovery as a major setback for Hezbollah. Lebanese politicians and analysts questioned that claim.

‘Up the Ladder’

“If Hezbollah were preparing for an offensive, then yes, destroying the tunnels would have an impact,” said Elias Hanna, a former Lebanese brigadier general. “But Hezbollah is not ready for that. It doesn’t have the right army or arsenal to do that.”

Regardless, the tunnels have already proven useful by provoking havoc on the other side, according to Ibrahim Bayram, a columnist for Lebanon’s an-Nahar newspaper.

“Hezbollah is content that it created concerns for its enemy,” he said.

Though both sides say they don’t want war, the 2006 conflict began after the Hezbollah raid escalated beyond expectations. It looks like Netanyahu may be trying to prevent a repeat, according to David Makovsky, director of the project on Middle East peace at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Netanyahu “is taking prudent first steps to address this issue diplomatically,” Makovsky said. If he can’t create a diplomatic front against Hezbollah’s tunnels and missiles, “then it sets the predicate for going up the ladder.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.