Of course, the soldiers in Operation Northern Shield are investing nearly all of their time eliminating Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels.
But this week we learned loud and clear from IDF intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Tamir Heyman that the real primary goal of the month-old IDF operation is deterrence. Not only that, but we learned that the next main goal of the operation is setting the stage for any future conflict with Hezbollah.
Israel hopes to grab the moral high ground and, by unearthing Hezbollah’s duplicity in building cross-border attack tunnels, establish legitimacy for the massive destruction that the IDF may need to bring down on Lebanon in a potential future war.
Eliminating Hezbollah tunnels themselves does end aspects of the threat the powerful force could pose in a future conflict, but as Heyman said, Israel may not be capable of eliminating all of the attack tunnels at this time.
“I want to emphasize that we are not talking about an operation whose goal is to destroy the attack tunnel capability of Hezbollah, but rather... to thwart Hezbollah’s primary attack plan,” he said in Tel Aviv.
Heyman said that Hezbollah’s plan had been to invade villages on the northern border to take the fighting into Israel.
His message was that by severely blunting Hezbollah’s attack-tunnel abilities, even if some abilities remained, it would be heavily discouraged from even a limited invasion.
How many more cross-border attack tunnels does Hezbollah have, and what is the point of eliminating only some of the tunnels?
While defense sources have told The Jerusalem Post that Hezbollah’s attack tunnels were always single digits, which would mean at most only a few have not yet been uncovered, there is reason to be skeptical.
First of all, during the 2014 Gaza war, initial IDF estimates regarding how many attack tunnels Hamas had and how long it would take to clear them were gross underestimates.
A small number of tunnels, which the IDF initially said could be cleared in a matter of days, eventually ballooned to 31 attack tunnels, which took around 50 days to eliminate.
Daphné Richemond-Barak, author of the book Underground Warfare and a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, told the Post: “There could definitely be more tunnels. It is very likely. The fact that we found five – five is a lot and very few.
“It’s a lot because it’s a significant security threat, but its very few because, given what we know about the threat and given Hezbollah’s, Hamas’s and Israel’s history underground,” the number seems low.
She also said that “going out on a major operation and making lots of media noise” – maybe “five tunnels justifies it, but the noise created expectations of an even graver threat... and even more tunnels.”
Richemond-Barak said she would feel safer with the tunnel situation if the IDF was crossing into Lebanon in a targeted fashion to get rid of tunnels also near the border, which possibly connect to cross-border tunnels or may be hooked up to them in the future.
Further, she suggested that “if we only have five, this suggests these tunnels may be... recent” and that the IDF may be missing locating older tunnels.
“If the IDF technology can only detect vibrations, anything that was already dug” before the IDF deployed the technology in the last six to 12 months “is sitting idle and would be much harder to detect.”
FORMER NATIONAL security adviser Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror told the Post that in deciphering how many tunnels Hezbollah might have and what tactic it might try next, “we need to be very careful comparing Gaza to the North.”
Just because there were 31 attack tunnels in Gaza, and Hezbollah is more sophisticated than Hamas, that does not mean it has as many attack tunnels.
Amidror, who is now a fellow both of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America in Washington, said, “In Gaza, it is very easy to dig tunnels because the ground is made of sand.”
In contrast, he said, “in the North, because the ground” is solid rock, “it is very hard to dig. You need machines, you need to work hard and very slow. All of this impacts a lot what method you use to locate... and deal with them,” he added.
Moreover, he said that “the entire conceptual approach” for dealing with tunnels in the North is different than in the South. For example, unlike the South, in the North “there is no underground fence... it is impossible because of the ground, and all the methodology is different.”
What would be the point of eliminating just some of Hezbollah’s tunnels?
Amidror said, “The operation is very important because it proved to Hezbollah that, “first, we know a lot about what is happening in Lebanon. Second, we took away their card to play, which was a winning card because it gave them strategic surprise.”
Continuing, he said, “We have neutralized Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s ability to surprise us in battle with a system of tunnels, from which they wanted to bring their forces against our fighters all along the border.” Without the operation to eliminate Hezbollah tunnels, in any future conflict with Hezbollah, “We would have sent IDF troops into Lebanon, but we would then learn that Hezbollah had sent its soldiers to infiltrate Metulla.”
He said taking away even five tunnels from Hezbollah makes a big difference psychologically and operationally.
“Now, even if they achieve some surprise, it will not be a strategic surprise. No doubt Hezbollah will be more cautious because they lost a big advantage. This also contributes to making the area more stable, so its importance is strategic and not just tactical,” he said.
Besides deterring Hezbollah from even a limited risky invasion of villages in northern Israel, the operation was clearly also designed to boost Israeli legitimacy.
A broad debate leading into any future conflict with Hezbollah would likely be who is acting in self-defense and who has been violating the other country’s sovereignty.
Already UNIFIL has been forced to acknowledge Hezbollah violated Israeli sovereignty with the tunnels, and the US and various European countries have also taken Israel’s side in the narrative.
All of this may be a boon in the battle for legitimacy, against a backdrop where Israel has been trying to make its case since 2006 that Hezbollah and Lebanon are violating UN resolutions.
Recently, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center issued a detailed report about Hezbollah’s violations of UN Security Council 1701, both with regard to digging tunnels into Israeli territory and on other fronts.
The center said, “The construction of the tunnels is another example of the systematic... violations of UNSC 1701.” It added that the tunnels were a key “aspect of the Iran and Hezbollah strategy to move the fighting into Israeli territory in the next war.”
The same report said that UNSC 1701 has also failed because “the Lebanese government and army... were supposed to enforce the security arrangements and prevent (Iranian-backed) Hezbollah violations.... The Lebanese government pays lip service to Resolution 1701, but in reality does not enforce it, because it does not want to come into conflict with Hezbollah.”
Likewise, the center said, “The upgraded UNIFIL, which is supposed to support the Lebanese Army, avoids enforcing Resolution 1701. It shows more intensive activity than before the war and supports the Lebanese Army’s routine activities. However, UNIFIL employs a narrow interpretation of Resolution 1701 because” UNIFIL also fears Hezbollah.
For similar reasons, “The international community pays lip service to the need to implement Resolution 1701,” but “has come to terms with the ongoing violations,” said the center.
So uncovering the tunnels might help shift the broader debate over the full range of Israel-Lebanon self-defense and sovereignty issues.
But there is a more concrete, though future, legitimacy consideration.
Amidror stated, “The tunnels were important, but there was also another thing. War between us and Hezbollah basically means destroying Lebanon” in many areas, noting that if Israel needs to bomb tunnels on the Lebanese side that go under civilian houses – “all of those houses will be gone.
“How many Lebanese houses will be gone? There are tens of thousands of rockets in houses, and if we bomb them and we destroy those houses – full neighborhoods will disappear into thin air because of the explosive material inside the rockets,” he said.
With this possible scenario, Amidror said, it is important to build a legitimacy case against Hezbollah “as a criminal terror organization hiding behind and under [literally] civilians, exploiting its citizens as human shields.
“So when we get to the decisive day when” parts of “Lebanon are erased,” including possible unavoidable civilian casualties, “we hope then that the world will understand better.”
Richemond-Barak cautioned that beyond general legitimacy, on the legal plane, any Israeli advantage would be limited to this period when it is unearthing the tunnels.
In other words, if there is a conflict in six to 12 months, the prior finding of the attack tunnels “does not help... because of the immediacy element to self-defense.”
She said that “establishing facts about the tunnels might make the US or the UN more likely to believe Israel, but raising awareness at the legitimacy level does not change the law” limiting what actions Israel can take.
HOW IS Hezbollah likely to adapt to the IDF’s success in eliminating many of its tunnels? How might it try to avoid detection or adapt other tactics to try to gain an upper hand over Israel?
Amidror has told the Post before that Hamas cannot dig deeper tunnels in an effort to avoid Israeli detection, because of Gaza’s proximity to the sea.
However, he said that Hezbollah can go deeper, but that going through additional rock comes at a price. Amid reports that Hezbollah tunnels are around 25 meters deep, he said, “Let’s say they want to dig down to 100 meters. But they also need to go up again through the rock. There is no free lunch.... I cannot say it’s impossible, but it would be an extremely long operation and much more complex in terms of engineering.”
Richemond-Barak said that since Israeli detection technology might be looking for vibrations, Hezbollah might try to use a machine to make Israel” detect false positives and throw if off the scent of real tunnels.
She said that various parties to World War I employed such tactics against each other in underground warfare.
The future of underground warfare between the IDF and Hezbollah is uncharted and likely far from over. But Operation Northern Shield has fundamentally altered the balance in Israel’s favor.
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