The dramatic and surprising announcement by Israel in early December that it had exposed a secret plan to dig invasive tunnels on its Lebanese border gave the impression that another war with Hezbollah is imminent. However, all indications are that we are not on the verge of a new round of violence, despite the IDF’s declaration that it had launched Operation Northern Shield.
Israeli intelligence managed once again to penetrate deeply into the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement and obtain via technological sources the exact locations of the tunnels along the 130 kilometer-long northern border.
It was revealed that Hezbollah excavated a few tunnels that infiltrated Israel. Three tunnels had already been discovered as now. The first tunnel – 25 meters deep, 200-meters long, including 40 meters inside Israeli territory near Metula, was fully exposed – and the IDF Engineering Corps blocked it with heavy cement. In the coming weeks, more tunnels are expected to be discovered and cemented.
Hezbollah had a long history of digging underground bunkers and tunnels as was evident during the 2006 Lebanese war between Israel and Hezbollah. But they served for defensive purposes – moving troops, communication and observation – to repel the Israeli invasion.
This time however, the tunnels were intended for offensive objectives. Hezbollah dug the tunnels to use them in the first phase of a future war, in which its elite fighters and motorcycles would be stealthily transported into Israel to lay ambushes, kidnap soldiers and civilians, and, if possible, take over Israeli villages.
This military doctrine was developed as a lesson learned from the relatively successful use of attack tunnels by Hamas on the Israel-Gaza border. Though most of Hamas’s tunnels were discovered and destroyed, they have undermined Israel’s sense of superiority and have left a psychological impact that still resonates in the consciousness of the Israeli public, the military, and the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Hamas tunnels were built as the result of lessons learned from North Korea and Vietnam, with Iranian engineering and financial support.
The close cooperation between Hamas and Hezbollah coordinated by Iran have led to the cross-fertilization of ideas and sharing of experience and know-how.
Yet it was easier for Hamas to dig its tunnels on soft, sandy desert soil while Hezbollah had to struggle with much more difficult, hard rocky mountain terrain.
The exposure of the northern tunnels has not only dealt an important military blow to Hezbollah's secret plans, but also inflicted a heavy psychological blow to the Shi’ite organization and its leaders. Operation Northern Shield shows how deeply Israeli intelligence agencies have managed to penetrate Hezbollah and glean accurate information from one of its best-guarded secrets.
Hezbollah will now have to once again start a soul-searching and self-damaging process of asking itself what went wrong, how the enemy (Israel) obtained information about the tunnels and whether there are traitors and spies among its own ranks.
The discovery of the tunnels – as impressive an operation as it was – doesn't solve Israeli problems vis-à-vis Hezbollah. The main strategic threat challenging Israel, if a new round of hostilities breaks out, is the unprecedented arsenal of rockets and missiles held by the Lebanese Shi'ite movement. It is estimated that Hezbollah has acquired 120,000 to 150,000 rockets. Hundreds of them are capable of carrying 250-500 kilograms of explosives. Dozens of missiles are very accurate and can target almost any place in Israel – including its air fields, army bases, power stations and the Dimona nuclear reactor. In that sense, Hezbollah has one of the largest missile stockpiles in the world, more than most armies, the IDF included.
Israeli war games and simulations have shown that hundreds of Israelis would be killed in the next war, which would inflict heavy damage to buildings, and rural communities near the border would have to be evacuated.
Another major headache for Israel is a new stage of the joint Iran-Hezbollah missile project. With the assistance of Iranian expertise and experts, Hezbollah is seeking to improve the accuracy and guidance systems of its long-range missiles.
This systematic effort is the main explanation for the Israel Air Force campaign in the last three years to bomb, sabotage and disrupt the supply lines from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah. Israeli warplanes have attacked more than 200 times in Syria over the last year.
But now, due to Russian pressure, the freedom of IAF operations in Syria and the number of sorties have been drastically reduced.
At the same time, Iran has changed its supply lines to Hezbollah. It is flying the new guidance systems in civilian planes directly to Lebanon without a stopover and transition in Syria.
Israel finds itself challenged. Its dilemma is evident. It can’t allow itself to down civilian airliners, which would be a violation of international norms and laws. If it bombs the missile factories, warehouses and launching sites in Lebanon, Hezbollah could retaliate with all its rocket and missile force, and an all-out war would break out.
Both sides, as well as Iran and the US – which has troops in Syria and has imposed sanctions on Iran – do not want a new war in the Middle East. Thus it seems that despite the inflammatory rhetoric and the drama surrounding the tunnels, mutual deterrence among all parties involved is still maintained.