Israelis woke up last Tuesday morning to the news that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had initiated a new campaign called “Northern Shield.”
The mission, which began in the middle of the night between Monday and Tuesday, is to destroy attack tunnels that Hezbollah, the Iranian-controlled terror army in Lebanon, has excavated. These tunnels begin in Lebanon and end in Israel. The terror tunnel Israel exposed on Tuesday was excavated over a period of two years. Dug 25 meters below the surface, the tunnel was more than 200 meters long, two meters wide, and two meters tall. It penetrated 40 meters into Israeli territory, ending in a field in the agricultural border town of Metulla. According to the IDF, its purpose was to cut Metulla off from the rest of the country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who is now also serving as defense minister – and IDF Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkott held a press briefing Tuesday night where they explained that the tunnel sealed on Tuesday is just one of multiple attack tunnels Hezbollah has built that traverse the border. Netanyahu said that the terror group intends to use these tunnels as part of its plan to conquer the Galilee in the next war.
The current operation, which aims to destroy these tunnels, therefore needs to be seen in the context of shaping the conditions on the ground ahead of that war.
Hezbollah has made no attempt to hide that it intends to invade Israel with ground forces in the next war. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah laid out the plans – put together with his bosses from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps – in 2007, the year after the last war. Nasrallah said then that the next war will see Hezbollah overrunning Israeli border towns in the Galilee with the intention of conquering northern Israel.
Hours before the operation began, Netanyahu flew to Brussels to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The purpose of the meeting, which lasted for three hours ,was to discuss the rapidly deteriorating security situation along Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria. In the last week alone, several events have happened that expose just how dangerous things have become.
One was Iran’s test of a medium-range ballistic missile capable reaching Israel and Europe with multiple warheads.
Iran has also been delivering components for precision guided missiles to Hezbollah through Beirut International Airport. Hezbollah has some 150,000 missiles, all pointed at Israel. Iran has long sought to upgrade Hezbollah’s missile capabilities by providing it with guidance systems that will enable it to conduct pinpoint strikes against Israeli civilian and military targets. As it stands, Hezbollah’s missiles cover all of Israel’s territory.
In Syria, reports have abounded of Iran’s campaign to repopulate Syria with Shiite members of Iranian-controlled militias and their families, particularly in formerly Sunni areas. Syrian President Bashar Assad — now an Iranian puppet — is reportedly naturalizing these Shiite fighters and their families. In part, the move is seen as a way to bypass Russia’s promise to Israel to prevent non-Syrian forces from deploying along the Syrian border with Israel.
Netanyahu’s decision last month to leave Hamas’s massive rocket and mortar barrage against southern Israel largely unanswered was a clear bid to keep IDF forces available for the coming conflict in the north with Hezbollah. Netanyahu and Eisenkot loudly declared that Israel has deployed its commando brigade, augmented by regular armored and infantry units, as well as naval and air force assets.
Some Israeli commentators see the rising threat from Hezbollah and Iran and scratch their heads at the bold headlines that accompanied the initiation of Operation Northern Defense. How can the IDF refer to a few bulldozers sealing a tunnel as an “operation”?
These analysts also note with worry that the IDF is scrupulously avoiding any action inside of Lebanese territory, and sealed only the section of the tunnel that penetrated into Israeli territory. Israel’s avoidance of all contact with Lebanese territory is likely to be seen as a sign of fear and weakness by its enemies. That is particularly the case given that Hezbollah violated Israeli sovereignty by digging its tunnel into Israeli territory.
Are Israel’s leaders so intimidated by Hezbollah that they will not take the simple step of destroying the entire tunnel? Israel has destroyed dozens of Hamas attack tunnels in full, rather than limiting its operations to the sections of the tunnels that entered Israeli territory. Far from showing that Israel is willing to stand up to Hezbollah, the analysts contend, Israel’s limited, careful, almost apologetic operation transmitted a message of fear.
That could be true. But on the other hand, it is hard to see the operation ending with the sealing of one or two tunnels.
In acting as it has, Israel has accomplished three things. First, it secured U.S. support for its operation against Hezbollah. Russia, too, has also backed Israel’s actions. By securing support from both, Israel sets the conditions for a wider operations against Hezbollah from a strong diplomatic position.
Second, Israel’s tunnel-sealing operations expose the fecklessness of UN operations in southern Lebanon. UN Security Council Resolution 1701 from August 2006 set the termsfor the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah following the last war. The resolution charged the UN International Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) with preventing Hezbollah forces from deploying along the border with Israel.
For years, Israel has presented mountains of evidence that Hezbollah is openly operating along its border and that UNIFIL has done nothing. In the case at hand, Hezbollah used a greenhouse along the border to hide its quarrying activities as it excavated the tunnel. According to IDF Spokesman Ronen Manalis, the greenhouse is located just meters from a UNIFIL post.
In the next round of war, UNIFIL forces will have no constructive role to play. By pointing out their inaction and failure to fulfill their duties, Israel may be paving the way for the disbanding of UNIFIL. This is important because for the past 12 years, Hezbollah has used UN forces as human shields to protect its operations along Israel’s borders.
The final thing Israel is accomplishing through its small operation against the tunnels is to set events in motion on its terms. In previous rounds of war, Hezbollah has struck first, and often taken Israel by surprise, whether by kidnapping its forces or opening major barrages of missile attacks against Israel, or both. If the tunnel operation is followed or carried out in tandem with operations against Hezbollah’s missile arsenals and precision missile factories recently set up by Iran in Lebanon, then Israel will be able to shape the conditions for the next war to its advantage — and to do so while receiving international backing for its actions.
In his Hebrew-language briefing Tuesday evening, Netanyahu assured the public, repeatedly, that there is much more going on behind the scenes than is going on in front of them.
It is impossible to know precisely how events will develop over the next several weeks, but it is reasonable to assess that Netanyahu was telling the truth. If so, Tuesday appears to have marked the beginning of a serious bid by Israel finally to confront and defeat Iran’s growing military power along its borders.