IDF launches operation to thwart and destroy Hezbollah tunnels from Lebanon
JALAA MAREY (AFP)
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on Tuesday announced it had launched an operation, dubbed "Operation Northern Shield", to prevent and destroy underground tunnels dug by Hezbollah from Lebanon into Israeli territory.
The IDF said that Israel has seen over the years a concerted effort by Iran-backed Hezbollah to dig such tunnels, though emphasized that none were yet operational nor posed an imminent threat to Israeli civilians.
"The digging of the cross-border attack tunnels that the IDF has discovered, before the attack tunnels became operational and posed an imminent threat to the safety of Israeli civilians, constitutes a flagrant and severe violation of Israeli sovereignty," the army said in a statement.
"The Hezbollah terror organization, which is responsible for digging the crossborder attack tunnels, continues its activity that is supported and funded by Iran, to establish its terror infrastructure against Israeli civilians."
An army spokesperson declined to say how many "attack tunnels" had been identified or by what means they would be cut off. The IDF has used various means to collapse or fill with material tunnels from the Gaza Strip.
The IDF said that "Operation Northern Shield" was initiated under a special task force that has since 2014 been leading operational, technological and intelligence efforts on the issue of tunnels on the northern border and has "developed vast abilities and knowledge on Hezbollah’s attack tunnel project."
The operation was launched before dawn on Tuesday, with the army declaring some areas adjacent to the Lebanon border a closed military zone and deploying additional forces to the north.
No special instructions were issued for Israeli civilians in the area, but local municipalities were preparing public bomb shelters as a precaution against potential attacks by Hezbollah.
Israel's security cabinet was set to convene to discuss the situation in the north at the defense ministry's headquarters in Tel Aviv at 7:30 p.m. local time, as the IDF said it was preparing for a "protracted" operation at the Lebanese border.
"Anyone who tries to harm the State of Israel will pay a heavy price," Netanyahu warned Tuesday as the operation commenced and the army began preparing to destroy the first subterranean tunnel discovered under the operation's framework.
The Lebanese terror group has yet to release an official response to the start of the Israeli operation.
One unnamed Hezbollah source told the Lebanese al-Nahar news outlet that the launch of the operation showed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in "crisis mode" over his political and legal woes as media outlets linked to the group published pictures of IDF troops and equipment at the border.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun said Tuesday he was following developments along the southern border after Israel began excavations off Lebanese territory.
The president said he held discussions with Lebanese officials including Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Army Commander General Joseph Aoun.
“During communications conducted by President Aoun, the situation was assessed in light of the available data concerning the Israeli operation, and security services were asked to follow the situation carefully.”
A Lebanese military official told the Associated Press that troops and intelligence officials were "observing" activities along the border, where Israel was using earth movers and other heavy machinery to dismantle what it says are tunnels infiltrating its territory.
The Lebanese Army said the situation on the southern border with Israel is calm and stable and their forces are fully prepared to face any emergency.
“The situation on the Lebanese side is calm and stable, and is under close monitoring," the army command said.
The Lebanese Army also said that forces had been deployed as usual to carry out operations with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon to prevent escalation.
“[Lebanese Army] units deployed in the area carry out their usual missions along the border in cooperation with UNIFIL to prevent any escalation or destabilization in the south, “ the army said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the (UNIFIL) said that the area of operation of its peacekeepers "remains calm" and that they are in communication with all relevant parties to ensure stability is maintained.
The UNIFIL peacekeeping force was tasked with ensuring “the immediate cessation” of attacks by Hezbollah and the cessation of all military operations on the border by both sides under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, adopted to end the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel.
But Israel often criticizes what it says is UNIFIL’s failure to fulfill its mandate to see the disarmament and containment of Hezbollah.
Israel has significantly stepped up its defenses along the Lebanese border, out of concern that Hezbollah will emerge more battle-hardened from its costly involvement in the civil war in Syria.
In September, the IDF unveiled eleven kilometers of what is planned to be a 130 kilometer defensive wall stretching the length of the Lebanon-Israel frontier, equipped with cameras in the hope of thwarting any attempt by its enemy Hezbollah to infiltrate and attack.
The White House gave Israel full backing Tuesday for the army operation to destroy Hezbollah terror-tunnels, with National Security Advisor John Bolton affirming the United States “strongly supports Israel’s efforts to defend its sovereignty.”
"More broadly, we call on Iran and all of its agents to stop their regional aggression and provocation, which pose an unacceptable threat to Israeli and regional security," Bolton said on Twitter.
The announcement of the operation came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels on Monday night.
Netanyahu said Tuesday that he briefed Pompeo during their meeting on the launch of Operation Northern Shield, telling him that the Hezbollah cross-border tunnels represent "a flagrant violation of Israeli sovereignty and UN Security Council Resolution 1701."
Netanyahu, who was joined on the flash trip to Brussels by top Israeli security and intelligence officials, reportedly conveyed a warning to Beirut through Pompeo that Israel could be forced to take preemptive military action if Lebanon does not take action to prevent advanced arms from being shipped directly to the Iran-backed militia.
Israel and Lebanon have been involved in a series of conflicts over the years and the two remain technically at war.
Since their last fought war in 2006, Hezbollah has strengthened its military capabilities significantly with an estimated arsenal of some 100,000 and 120,000 short-and medium-range missiles and rockets, as well as several hundred long-range missiles trained on the Jewish State.
Israel has also long warned that it believes Hezbollah intends to conduct cross-border raids in any future conflict with Israel, establishing a special forces unit -- known as the Radwan Unit -- with the specific goal of capturing an Israeli village near the border.
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