Ne­tanyahu and the Hezbol­lah tun­nels

Arab News - - Opinion - MO­HAMED CHEBARO

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.

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