Israel Army Opens Operation Against Hezbollah Border Tunnels

(Bloomberg) -- Israel launched an operation Tuesday to destroy underground tunnels that Iran-backed Hezbollah militants dug to infiltrate from Lebanon.

The action against the tunnels was limited to territory inside Israel, and will expand beyond its current focus near the northern city of Metullah over the next few days, the military said. Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said Israel had reinforced its troop presence in the area to be prepared for “different acts of aggression by Hezbollah,” warning the Lebanese group not to “interfere with our work or threaten our forces.”

There was no response from Hezbollah, but the organization’s Al-Manar television station described the operation as an “inflated media campaign” to distract attention from corruption allegations dogging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Sunday, police recommended Netanyahu stand trial in a third graft case.

Israel has acted against cross-border tunnels from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for years, but Tuesday’s operation was its first open acknowledgment of Hezbollah tunnels from the north. Israeli officials see the menace from Iran and its proxies acting from Lebanon and Syria as far more serious than the challenge from Gaza militants.

Netanyahu, who flew to Brussels Monday to brief U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Israel’s plans, said his country “will continue with additional actions -- overt and covert -- to ensure the security of Israel.”

The Lebanese army, on its Twitter account, described the situation at the border as “calm and stable” and said it was following events closely. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon stepped up patrols along the frontier -- known as the Blue Line -- and said it was liaising with all sides to avoid escalation.

At a press conference late Tuesday, Netanyahu and Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, the military chief of staff, showed a video clip recorded underground of Hezbollah fighters crossing from Lebanon into Israeli territory.

“We are acting to prevent Iran gaining a foothold in Syria and in Lebanon,” Netanyahu said.

Military Zone

Tensions between Israel and Iran have been rising over Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, where it has been fighting, largely through Hezbollah, to prop up President Bashar al-Assad. Israeli officials say Hezbollah has as many as 150,000 missiles, a far larger arsenal than it had in 2006, when the sides fought a 34-day war that killed about 1,200 Lebanese and 165 Israelis. The U.S. and Europe consider Hezbollah’s military wing to be a terrorist group.

The Israeli military declared areas next to its northern security fence a closed military zone, but residents around Metullah were told to continue their lives as normal, without special precautions.

Conricus told reporters that more than four years ago, Israeli intelligence learned of a Hezbollah goal to infiltrate Israel to conquer towns near the border. It decided to move now after developing technology that makes it easier to find and destroy the underground passages.

He said the army thinks Hezbollah has more tunnels than the one exposed Tuesday, but declined to say how many. That passage was dug from a civilian home on the Lebanese side of the border, descends to an average depth of about 25 meters (82 feet) and runs for about 200 meters, the last 40 of them inside Israel, Conricus said.

Gaza Experience

Former National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror, a retired major-general, said the army’s experience locating cross-border attack tunnels from Gaza had aided the effort in the north, despite the differences in terrain between sandy Gaza and mountainous Lebanon.

“It’s understood on our side that the decision about the next step lies with Tehran and Beirut. They will have to decide how they will react,” Amidror told reporters.

Conricus wouldn’t confirm reports that Israel had moved extra Iron Dome anti-missile batteries to the north, saying only that “additional troops and capabilities” have been made available in the area.

“Although we’re acting on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, we know Hezbollah may try to provoke” a confrontation over the tunnels, he said.

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