Israel begins destroying Hezbollah tunnels amid wider fears
BEIRUT – The Israeli military has moved to destroy tunnels allegedly dug by Hezbollah more than two weeks after announcing the discovery of the cross-border tunnel network on the Lebanese-Israeli border.
Tel Aviv initiated Operation Northern Shield on December 4 to find and destroy the tunnels. “The neutralisation and destruction phase of the cross-border attack tunnels… has begun,” the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said in a statement December 20.
Unlike tunnels in the Gaza Strip, which the IDF has at times destroyed with explosives, Israeli military sources told local media that the IDF would plug the passages from Lebanon.
“This stage will be carried out with a number of techniques and measures, which will render the tunnels entirely unusable and will prevent Hezbollah from utilising them and carrying out its plans,” the IDF statement said.
Tel Aviv warned Hezbollah amid fears of a reoccurrence of the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Israel said it believed the tunnels were meant to be used in the opening salvo in a future war.
The months-long war in 2006 killed more than 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and more than 160 Israelis, mostly IDF soldiers.
“The IDF… continues to operate… with reinforced troops and is prepared with a wide variety of enhanced capabilities for any developments, should they occur,” the military said.
Israel deployed additional troops to the Lebanese border as a precautionary measure, although it was unclear whether Israel intended to push into Lebanese territory to deal with the tunnels.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun said he had received assurances from the United States that Israel has “no aggressive intentions” with Operation Northern Shield. The Lebanese Armed Forces issued a statement saying it was ready for any developments on the border with Israel and would be working with UN forces to maintain stability in the border region.
The UN Interim Force in Lebanon confirmed it increased security patrols along the Lebanese-Israeli border.
Fears were still high that Hezbollah could retaliate should Israeli forces enter Lebanese territory.
“We have at our disposal infantry units, armoured units, stand-by aviation, naval units, all synchronised with clear orders and ready for a wide range of scenarios,” IDF spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus warned.
Questions remain about the strength of the Iran-backed Hezbollah, particularly given its protracted involvement in the conflict in neighbouring Syria where it has been assisting Syrian government forces. There are estimates that 2,000 Hezbollah fighters had been killed and 10,000 wounded in fighting in Syria, approximately one-third of Hezbollah’s forces.