Netanyahu and the Hezbollah tunnels
Hezbollah tunneling in south Lebanon is hardly news but the revelation by Israel reveals the efforts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making to ease his domestic position. For the embattled leader, this is a way of boosting his standing in the polls in the event of a general election — or distracting from further political pressure after Israeli police recommended that he and his wife
Sara be indicted for bribery, the third such recommendation against the Israeli premier in recent months.
Israel’s army revealed earlier this week that its forces have discovered Hezbollah tunnels linking Lebanese border territories with Israeli border areas, creating a potential security breach that could influence future confrontation between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israeli forces. The UN peacekeeping force has confirmed also the existence of a tunnel near Mutela, in northern Israel, near the Lebanese border.
Parallel to that Israel announced that its troops launched an operation dubbed as “Northern Shield” to destroy the tunnel dug by Hezbollah with the sole aim of infiltrating Israeli territories. Lebanon, on the other hand, denied the allegations. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, whose Christian political party is allied with Hezbollah, asked his country’s ambassador to the UN to submit a complaint against Israel, accusing the Jewish state of carrying out a diplomatic and political campaign prior to launching military operations against Lebanon.
Under the UN resolution that ended the
2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia is barred from operating in southern Lebanon. However, it has been common knowledge that Hezbollah has been operating unhindered in Lebanon’s southern heartland, storing weapons, carrying out regular exercises to raise military readiness, digging tunnels linking frontline posts and villages and importing huge amount of missiles for use in a future confrontation with Israel, all under the nose of UNIFIL, the UN forces in Lebanon.
There was no comment from Hezbollah about the tunnels. The two sides have avoided major conflict across the border since that war 12 years ago, though Israel has mounted attacks on the heavily armed Hezbollah groups in Syria fighting to protect the Bashar Assad regime, including attacking joint Iranian and Hezbollah bases close to the occupied Golan Heights and other bases close to Damascus.
The Israeli military later specified that it had located one such tunnel dug from a home in the area of Kafr Kela in southern Lebanon that crossed into its territory and was working to neutralize it. The spokesperson revealed that the tunnel stretched for some 200 meters at a depth of around 25 meters, leading the army to declare the area around the Israeli town of Metula a closed military zone.
The Israeli operation is expected to last for weeks. However, Netanyahu has been criticized for over-spinning the story, especially as Israel fought a “tunnels war” with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, in Gaza in 2014. The revelation that Hamas and Hezbollah have shared knowledge since then is also old news.
As serious as they are, the revelations have not pointed to any imminent aggressive move by Hezbollah deserving Netanyahu’s frantic posturing against the tunnels and their strategic impact on the safety and security of Israel. Hezbollah militants are still entangled in the Syrian conflict alongside their master, Iran. For now, it seems Russian and American pressures have pushed Iranian and Hezbollah operatives away from areas in southern Syria close to Israel’s border.
However, that does not mean that the hardened Hezbollah fighters alongside Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are that far from the border region. Syrian civilians tell stories of land confiscation and the settling of foreign fighters and their families in strategic Syrian towns and villages that amount to a tilting of the demographic balance in favor of a “loyal shield” that could be vital in case of any future Iranian, Syrian or Hezbollah activity against Israel.
In the rhetoric of the “Resistance Block” (Syria, Iran and Hezbollah) this strategic civilian re-deployment in Syria would tighten the ring around the Israeli state, creating a so-called enemy frontline from the Syrian and Lebanese border with Israel in the north to Gaza in the south. It is a plan that Iranian military leaders evoke whenever they need to send a message that their resistance against the US and Israel and core anti-Iran Arab countries has stretched beyond their borders to dominate many Middle Eastern capitals, in addition to Beirut and Damascus and the capitals of Iraq, and Yemen and even Bahrain.
Before the tunnels saga with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Netanyahu repeatedly pledged to stop Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria and to keep it from transferring advanced weapons to its ally in Lebanon. His statements this time, however, are a reflection of his domestic Israeli posturing as the pressure on his government increases after the recent failed Gaza confrontation and the noose tightens as criminal charges of bribery against him and his wife could mean the end of a political career that dominated the Israeli landscape since the mid-1990s.