A woman walks her dog as an Israeli soldier guards near the border with Lebanon, the morning after the Israeli military said it had launched an operation to "expose and thwart" cross-border attack tunnels from Lebanon, in Israel's northernmost town Metula December 5, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
The cross-border Hezbollah tunnel discovered early Tuesday morning by the IDF outside of Metulla would have been used by the terrorist group to send militants from their elite Radwan unit to cut the community off from Route 90, a senior IDF officer said on Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters meters away from the Hezbollah tunnel, the officer said that the military decided to launch Operation Northern Shield to expose and destroy cross-border Hezbollah attack tunnels before they were operational, and posed an imminent and direct threat to Israel because “the tunnels were something that we could not wait to deal with until a war were to break out.”
The tunnel discovered Tuesday morning stretched from a residential structure in the south of the Lebanese village of Kfar Kela and infiltrated some 40 meters into kiwi and apple orchards belonging to the community of Metulla.
The senior officer stated that the element of surprise was a major component of the operation and that Hezbollah militants had been working on the tunnel outside Metulla until the moment the IDF announced the operation had begun.
Shortly after the beginning of the operation, the IDF placed a camera some 25 meters into the tunnel and moments later saw two militants approaching the camera which had a small bomb attached to it which then detonated leading the militants to retreat.
Hezbollah, he said, chose the residential building which was used to make bricks because of its strategic location, in proximity to a UNIFIL post, hidden behind the security wall and not visible from Israel. Israeli jets, he said, noticed dozens of trucks going in and out of the building and driving some 10-12 kilometers to dispose of the material.
UNIFIL, the senior officer said, was “surprised” about the discovery of the tunnel and has met with both the IDF and Lebanese Armed Forces on the issue.
On Wednesday, an IDF team led by head of the IDF International Cooperation Unit, Brig.-Gen. Erez Maisel participated in a pre-scheduled trilateral meeting headed by Maj.-Gen. Stefano del Col, head of the UNIFIL Force and mission commander, with a team from the Lebanese Armed Forces.
According to a statement released by the IDF, while the meeting took place “according to established routine,” it focused on Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnel.
“The IDF expressed its protests regarding the severe violation of Israeli sovereignty and UN Security Council Resolution 1701,” read the statement.
The military said that it took Hezbollah around two years to build the 200-meter-long tunnel and believes that there are longer tunnels along the 130 kilometer-long border between Israel and Lebanon.
According to the senior officer, the discovery of the tunnel outside Metulla was not “a Hanukkah miracle” but rather the culmination of years of intelligence gathering and significant technological investment by the IDF.
While Hezbollah has worked on their tunnel project for years with the belief that Israel was in t he dark, the officer stated that over the past year Israel Air Force platforms have been surveying the border area and gathering intelligence about possible tunnel locations.
“Hezbollah has lowered their profile tremendously since we started the operation,” he said. “They still don’t fully understand how much we know about their project.”
While Hezbollah has currently stopped working on the project, making it harder for IDF troops to find the precise location of the tunnels, the officer stressed that the military will continue until all objectives are met.
If the group decides to respond to the IDF’s engineering work either by targeting troops taking part in the operation or launching rockets towards the home front, Israel has military options ready, the senior officer said.
Officials in the defense establishment have stressed that Israel’s intelligence capabilities have increased dramatically since the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and that the IDF has a significantly higher number of targets in the North if another war were to break out.
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