JERUSALEM: Israel’s army said Tuesday it had detected Hezbollah tunnels infiltrating its territory from Lebanon and launched an operation to destroy them, a move likely to raise tensions with the Iran-backed group.
The surprise announcement came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels over regional dangers, with both having repeatedly warned over the activities of Iran, Israel’s main enemy.
Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the “attack tunnels” were not yet operational. He declined to say how many were detected or how they would be destroyed.
“We have launched Operation Northern Shield to expose and thwart cross-border attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah terror organisation from Lebanon into Israel,” Conricus told journalists.
The area around the Israeli town of Metula has been declared a closed military zone, with the army distributing images of heavy machinery digging into the ground.
All operations would take place within Israeli territory, Conricus said, though it still raised the risk of a response from Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group with which Israel fought a devastating war in 2006.
According to Conricus, the tunnels were part of Hezbollah’s 2012 plan to “shift the battlefield to Israel” and “conquer the Galilee” in a future conflict by infiltrating its territory.
In 2013 the army acted on reports Hezbollah was digging tunnels, but failed to locate any, he said.
Following the 2014 war between Israel and Gaza, in which Islamist movement Hamas used cross-border attack tunnels to infiltrate the Jewish state, the army said it found that “Hezbollah and Hamas share knowledge” and soon after began intensive work to prevent tunnels from Lebanon.
The military has used various means to collapse or fill in tunnels from the Gaza Strip.
“There is no immediate threat to Israeli citizens,” Conricus said of the Lebanese front, noting that while the army has enhanced its presence in the north, it has not summoned reserve soldiers.
He said the military “holds the Lebanese government responsible for all activities perpetrated in Lebanon towards Israel.”
Netanyahu said he had planned to discuss with Pompeo “steps we are taking together to block the aggression of Iran and its proxies in the north,” referring to Syria and Lebanon.
Netanyahu has spoken of a sensitive security situation in recent days without providing details, particularly after his Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned over a controversial Gaza ceasefire last month.
Lieberman’s resignation threatened to provoke early elections, but Netanyahu worked to hold his coalition together and is now clinging to a one-seat majority in parliament.
The premier had said that polls now would be “irresponsible” due to undefined security threats.
His comments were seen by some at the time as an attempt to save his government, with polls showing wide disapproval among the Israeli public of his handling of the Gaza flare-up in November.
“In a period of security sensitivity like this, it is irresponsible to take down the government,” he said last month.
Netanyahu has pledged to stop arch-foe Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria and to keep it from transferring advanced weapons to its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.
There has been increased attention in Israel in recent days over Israeli officials’ concerns regarding Iranian activity in Lebanon.
Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes in Syria against what it says are Iranian military targets and deliveries of advanced arms to Hezbollah.
However, a friendly fire incident in Syria in September that led to the downing of a Russian plane by Syrian air defences during an Israeli strike has complicated Israeli operations there.
Russia subsequently upgraded Syrian air defences with the delivery of the advanced S-300 system, which Damascus had said last month would make Israel “think carefully” before carrying out further air raids.