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An Israeli soldier in Metula town near the frontier with Lebanon, the morning after the military said it had launched an operation to thwart cross-frontier attack tunnels from Lebanon. Image Credit: Reuters

Damascus: Lebanon was on high alert over the weekend, fearing military escalation after Israel claimed it found another tunnel underneath its northern border, belonging to the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

For the past week, Israel has been destroying an unidentified number of Hezbollah tunnels, in a high-profile operation codenamed “Northern Shield.”

On Thursday, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFL) confirmed the existence of at least one such tunnel near the “Blue Line,” in clear violation of UNSCR 1701.

Passed after the last Lebanon War of 2006, 1701 prohibits the digging of cross-border tunnels and requires all territory south of the Litani River to be Hezbollah-free.

Many Lebanese fear that Israel won’t stop on its side of the border and will expand its operations deep into Lebanese territory. On Thursday, Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz threatened just that, saying: “If we think that in order to thwart the tunnels…then we will operate on the other side of the border.”

“(Israeli premier) Netanyahu is trying to mobilise international opinion against Lebanon,” said prominent journalist As’ad Beshara, pointing to a systematic campaign that started last September when while speaking at the United Nations in New York, Benjamin Netanyahu said that Hezbollah had three precision missiles trained near Beirut International Airport.

He held up an image with the alleged missile sites marked with big red dots, saying that one site was in the Ouzai neighbourhood, a hotbed for Hezbollah.

He then said: “I have a message for Hezbollah today. Israel knows what you’re doing. Israel knows where you’re doing it, and Israel will not let you get away with it.”

“It started with the missiles and now he has moved to tunnels” added Beshara.

“This means that there is a big campaign to prove that Lebanon has violated UNSCR 1701. This resolution has actually been violated from both sides. The Israelis are still in Lebanese airspace and there are big question marks about the area the south of the Litani River, which the Lebanese state should have demilitarised.”

“If Israel proves that tunnels are cross-border ones, it would have scored a point over Lebanon,” he said.

This would bring the two parties closer to the edge of war.

Others believe, however, that the entire operation was staged by Israel to shift attention from Netanyahu’s domestic situation, where he is facing multiple-charges of corruption.

One case involves receiving gifts from filmmaker Arnon Milchan and Austrian casino mogul James Packer.

Another relates to Netanyahu trying to influence positive coverage in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronoth.

On Sunday, Israeli police recommended his indictment on charges of corruption and bribery.

Demonstrations were staged against Netanyahu last December and more recently, calls are underway for early elections in Israel, after the mid-November resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Education Minister Naftali Bennett is also threatening to walk out on Netanyahu’s coalition government, which would surely bring down the Prime Minister.

What adds to this assessment is the fact that, by its own admission, Israel has known about these tunnels for years, as early as 2014.

2006 War

In 2006, Israel launched a brutal assault on Lebanon in a fight with Hezbollah that claimed thousands of lives and wreaked havoc on the country’s infrastructure.

Since then, several flare-ups have occurred, none that have materialised into a full-fledged wawr.

Most recently in April 2017, Israel layered its airspace with very sophisticated defenses, using the US Arrow System and David’s Sling to handle medium-to-long range Iranian missiles in Hezbollah possession.

Drones and smaller rockets, like Hezbollah’s famous Katyushas, were to be downed by the Iron Dome.

According to the UN, there has been a 35 per cent increase in Israeli aerial activity in Lebanese airspace.

Israel also constructed hills and new earth beams, conducting routine military drills and dotting the border with spy equipment.

This week, addressing the UN Security Council Lebanese Ambassador Amal Mudallali said that Israel has already “breached the Lebanese communications grid by hacking into the telephone network and sending recorded messages to peaceable civilian inhabitants of the southern part of the village of Kafr Killa, warning them of imminent explosions to take place on Lebanese territory.”

According to the IDF, one of the identified tunnels had been dug from Kafr Killa.

Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon replied: “The Lebanese Government, under whose rule Hezbollah has established an underground network of missiles and has dug tunnels entering into Israel, is hypocritically seeking to condemn Israel, which is seeking to defend its citizens.”