Israel today launched an attack on Lebanon in a bid to destroy what it claims are Hezbollah tunnels channelled under the Israel-Lebanon border.
The Israeli army announced today that it had begun the attack – dubbed “Operation Northern Shield” – in the early hours of this morning. The army declared the town of Metulla, located on the Israeli-Lebanese border not far from the occupied Golan Heights, a closed military zone.
“The [Israeli] army said the operation was expected to expand to other locations […] in the coming days,” the Times of Israel (ToI) reported.
Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus announced that “a number of tunnels” had been dug by Hezbollah, but that they “are not yet operationally ready”, ToI added. “We see Hezbollah’s actions as a flagrant and blatant violation of Israeli sovereignty,” Conricus continued.
News of the attack comes just a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Belgium to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss Iran, which Israel believes funds and arms Hezbollah. Netanyahu said at the meeting: “I look forward to discussing with you how we can together curb Iran’s aggression in the region, in Syria, in Iraq, in Lebanon and elsewhere and to continue our efforts to achieve peace and security for everyone.”
Israel is no stranger to carrying out attacks against what it claims are Hezbollah bases and infrastructure in Lebanon. In November, the UN accused Israel of committing 550 violations of Lebanese airspace in less than four months. The record number of violations is thought to total 2,057 flight hours, according to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which since 1978 has monitored the cessation of hostilities between the two countries.
Israel’s war on Hezbollah has also spilled over into neighbouring Syria. Despite officially adhering to a policy of non-alignment in the now seven-year-old Syrian civil war, Israel regularly carries out air strikes against alleged Hezbollah-Iranian positions in Syria. Just last week, Syrian sources claimed to have shot down an Israeli warplane and four missiles which had been aimed at the town of Kiswah, south of the Syrian capital Damascus. The area was said to be the location of Hezbollah’s communications and logistics hub for southern Syria, according to two senior regional intelligence sources. The Israeli army denied reports that one of its aircraft had been hit.
Yet some commentators have interpreted this morning’s air strikes as explanation for Israel’s reluctance to start an all-out war in the Gaza Strip in the wake of its botched operation in the besieged enclave last month. Israeli daily Haaretz reported that: “Now we can say that the tunnels in the north were among the considerations in the security cabinet meeting where the ministers decided not to launch a full-scale operation in Gaza.”
“When Netanyahu spoke of security threats that he could not disclose […] it can be assumed that the northern front was one of the threats,” Haaretz added.
Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel would not escalate its attack on Gaza to a full-scale war was fiercely criticised by hawkish members of the cabinet, including Education Minister Naftali Bennett and then defence minister Avigdor Lieberman. The decision sparked a political crisis in Israel, with Lieberman tendering his resignation and withdrawing his Yisrael Beitenu party from the ruling coalition.
Bennett’s Jewish Home faction quickly demanded that they be given the newly-vacated defence portfolio, threatening to bring down the government if their demands were not met. However, Netanyahu called Jewish Home’s bluff, taking on the position himself and refusing to give in to the party’s demands. Although narrowly averting a dissolution of the government, in the weeks since Netanyahu’s government has proven to be significantly weakened, postponing two landmark votes on the so-called “cultural-loyalty” bill and the Haredi draft law.