Israel’s hunt for cross-border tunnels ratchets up pressure on Hezbollah
BEIRUT - Israel’s Operation Northern Shield, begun December 4 along the frontier with Lebanon, confirmed what has long been speculated — Hezbollah has built cross-border tunnels to allow fighters to penetrate Israeli territory undetected.
Hezbollah offered no formal response and the Israeli operation is not expected to trigger a war that neither side seems to seek. Nevertheless, the Israelis said the operation may continue for weeks, which could provide Hezbollah a chance to retaliate in a manner that delivers a sting to the Israeli military without starting a full confrontation, thus maintaining its deterrence posture.
The timing of the operation may be linked to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s legal woes but it also complements Israel’s policy of increasing pressure on Hezbollah by employing measures other than verbal threats.
These include exposing Hezbollah’s alleged missile production facilities by releasing satellite images to the public and sending a WhatsApp message to residents of southern Beirut with another satellite image of a building purportedly used to store weapons.
A day ahead of the start of Operation Northern Shield, Netanyahu met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels, reportedly to discuss Lebanon and to receive backing for the anti-tunnel campaign and assurances of Washington’s support if it triggers a conflict.
Hezbollah has employed underground facilities in its struggle against Israel since the 1980s. In the six years following Israel’s troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah constructed an elaborate network of underground facilities across the border district. The bunker-and-tunnel system was used in the July-August war of 2006 to launch rockets close to the border and to ambush Israeli troops.
Israel discovered a tunnel on the first day of the operation in orchards near the Israeli settlement of Metula. The Israeli military released a satellite image marking the origin of the tunnel as a building close to the technical fence at the southern end of Kfar Kila. Much of the terrain that hugs the Lebanese side of the border is open and rugged, which hampers covert tunnel building.
On the other hand, Kfar Kila and the adjacent village of Addaisseh have numerous houses and buildings close to the border, which raised speculation over the years that the area could be the source of Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels. Israel’s recent activities opposite Kfar Kila appear to confirm such analysis.
Hezbollah may also have taken advantage of topography along the border to avoid detection. For example, in areas where the border follows a hill top or ridge, Hezbollah’s engineers could have begun a tunnel on the valley floor on the Lebanese side and burrowed horizontally through the hill, passing 100 metres or more beneath the border fence before emerging in Israel.
Hezbollah has been training its cadres to penetrate Israeli territory in the event of war since at least 2007. The intention is to reverse Israel’s long-standing policy of waging its wars on the territory of its neighbours by storming settlements and military bases on Israel’s home front, causing chaos and panic across Galilee.
Two years ago, the Israelis unveiled a plan to evacuate up to 78,000 residents of northern Israel in the event of war, underlining the seriousness with which they take the threat of a Hezbollah incursion.
Over the past two years, the Israelis have been building physical obstacles along the border to hamper ground infiltration. They include earth berms and cutting the sides of valleys to turn them into cliffs. More recently, Israel has been erecting a concrete wall along the border, notably between Kfar Kila and Addaisseh under which passed the tunnel recently discovered by the Israelis.
It appears the existence of the tunnel may have become known during the wall-building project. The construction of the concrete wall may have served as cover for Israelis use equipment to conduct a subterranean survey along the border where Hezbollah tunneling activity was suspected.
The utility of attack tunnels is that they allow Hezbollah to quickly insert relatively large numbers of fighters into Israeli territory undetected. On the other hand, tunnels need to be constructed well in advance of their use, which carries the risk that they will be discovered and destroyed before they are needed.
Tunnels, however, are not the only means Hezbollah has to cross into Israel in the event of war. It could blast through the technical fence — whether wire or concrete. The Israeli technical fence carries motion sensors to detect potential breaches.
Many years ago, Hezbollah fighters would deliberately tap the fence with sticks in various locations then time the speed with which Israeli troops arrived to check on the incident. With the outbreak of war, Hezbollah could cross the fence at numerous points and include decoy penetrations to confuse the Israelis.
Alternatively, Hezbollah may stage seaborne insertions using underwater swimmer dispersal vehicles or semi-submersible craft of the type in use by Iran. Palestinian militants took to sea to infiltrate Israel from Lebanon in the 1970s. Israel is known to have monitoring equipment in its coastal waters to detect seaborne insertions.
A third means of infiltrating Israeli territory is from the air using hang gliders. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command used this method to stage a deadly raid on an Israeli military base in northern Galilee in 1987.
Western intelligence sources said Hezbollah has a fleet of hang gliders to insert fighters into Israeli territory. Some areas of southern Lebanon have a topographical advantage over adjacent areas of Israel that could facilitate a successful cross-border launch.