Operation Northern Shield’s goals – and Trump’s disservice to Israel

Hezbollah had a long history of digging underground bunkers and tunnels as was evident during the 2006 Lebanese war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Soldiers at the Lebanon border (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Soldiers at the Lebanon border
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
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. Two tunnels had already been discovered as of press time. 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 military intelligence has 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. Another question that should be asked is whether the Mossad was involved, as was previously published.
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 and missiles capable of carrying up to 500 kilograms of explosives and reaching 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 ahave ttacked 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.
THE BIBLE tells us the story of Balaam and Balak, which is interpreted as a fable, about how the best intentions of blessing and offering praise backfire into a curse. This is exactly how President Donald Trump’s most recent reference to Israel should be interpreted.
In his interview with The Washington Post, Trump said that the only reason that US troops are in the Middle East is not because of oil but because of Israel.
“Oil is becoming less and less of a reason because we’re producing more oil now than we’ve ever produced,” Trump said. “So, you know, all of a sudden it gets to a point where you don’t have to stay there. One reason to stay is Israel.”
As far as oil is concerned, Trump is right. US dependence on Middle East oil has decreased in the last decade. Ostensibly, Israel should be satisfied with Trump’s words. For the last year, Israeli officials, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and its military and intelligence chiefs worked hard to persuade the administration not to withdraw US troops from Syria.
Israel has a huge stake in American servicemen remaining in the Middle East in general and Syria in particular. There are currently around 2,000 US soldiers in Syria, most of them belonging to special forces. They are deployed to counter the Russian incursion into the region and repel Iranian hegemonic aspirations. Though publicly Israeli leaders will say nothing that may be interpreted as criticism of Trump, privately they express uneasiness about the president’s comments.
Over decades, American and Israeli leaders have established a solid strategic alliance, which is based on mutual interests, shared values and cultural ties.
This alliance enables Israel to benefit from a generous 4.3 billion dollars in financial aid annually as well as strong diplomatic support. The US protects Israel at international forums, especially at the United Nations against resolutions to condemn and occasionally sanction Israel for its continued occupation of the Palestinian West Bank.
Israel purchases from the US its most advanced state-of-the-art weaponry, above all warplanes and sophisticated intelligence equipment. The two countries conduct joint military exercises and share and exchange intelligence including in the most sensitive operations.
The assassination in Damascus in 2008 of Imad Mughniyah is a case in point. The Washington Post reported that Mughniyah, the “chief of staff” of Lebanon’s Hezbollah was killed by a car bomb, in a joint Mossad-CIA operation. But throughout the years, successive Israeli governments, Netanyahu’s included, have emphasized that Israel can and will defend itself if necessary. They have stressed time and again that the don’t need and don’t want US troops to fight shoulder to shoulder with Israeli soldiers and spill their blood in defense of the Jewish state.
Trump is adored by the right-wing Netanyahu government. He is considered as the most pro-Israel US president in history, and some of Netanyahu’s supporters have elevated him to the status of Israel’s savior. He has moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem and cut aid to the Palestinian Authority but his long-awaited “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians is still pending.
Practically he has given Israel a license to do whatever it wants and get away with it. But now, in his clumsy way and with his limited vocabulary, Trump’s words have set a trap for Israel. If US troops are killed in the Middle East, Israel’s rivals and bashers as well as right-wing antisemites will hold Israel responsible. Comments in this direction have already been written and voiced in social media.
Had Trump been more careful in choosing his words, he should have justified his decision to leave the US military in the region with a different kind of explanation.
National Security Adviser John Bolton stated in September that American forces would remain in Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” James Jeffrey, the US envoy to Syria, said that same month Washington was “going to be focusing on the long-range Iranian presence there and ways to get that out while we’re working on the Daesh problem,” referring to the Arabic acronym for ISIS. On the ground, the US-led coalition has already used deadly force in several high-profile encounters with Iranian-backed or pro-regime forces.
It would have been better for Israel, which Trump so strongly supports, and it would have been more accurate to say that the reason the president changed his view to recall US troops back home was because he wants to rein in Iran and that he is doing this to support all US allies in the region, and not only Israel.
By not explaining his policy’s rationale and even twisting it, notwithstanding his good intentions, the American president has done a disservice to Israeli national interests.
Yossi Melman blogs at www.yossimelman.com and tweets @Yossi_melman