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Is the Israeli military operation along the border with Lebanon for real?

UNIFIL peacekeepers stand by at the Lebanon and Israel border [file photo]
UNIFIL peacekeepers stand by at the Lebanon and Israel border [file photo]

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) announced suddenly on Tuesday morning the start of a massive military operation along the border with Lebanon. The reason, said the IDF, is to search for “offensive” tunnels dug by Hezbollah which, according to a report on Israeli Army Radio, are “penetrating Israeli soil and have been prepared for carrying out terror attacks on Israel.” The report added that the occupation army had declared the border area to be a closed military zone. Yedioth Ahronoth pointed out that Israeli ministers were told not to speak to the media about the campaign dubbed “Operation Northern Shield”.

“The Israeli army has launched Operation Northern Shield in order to neutralise terrorist tunnels from Lebanon,” explained Prime, Foreign and now Defence Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We are proud of the commanders and soldiers of our army who are carrying out complex operations and achieve practical successes… Anyone who attempts to harm Israel will pay a high price. We must act strictly and responsibly at the same time and on all fronts. We will continue with more overt and covert procedures that guarantee Israel’s security.”

However, analysts have already cast doubt on the aims of the operation announced by Netanyahu, who has been Minister of Defence since the resignation of Avigdor Lieberman in the wake of the failure of a covert operation in the Gaza Strip last month. He is said to be covering that failure, which could have led to an early General Election, as well as whitewashing the police recommendation to indict him on corruption charges.

READ: Israel launches attack on Lebanon, claims destroying Hezbollah tunnels 

One specialist in Israeli affairs, Dr Saleh Al-Naami, described what is going on along the Lebanese border as a “propaganda” exercise intended to divert public attention from the failure of the Israeli Special Forces in Gaza which put the fate of Netanyahu’s government on the line. The Times of Israel more or less concurs with that analysis. Operation Northern Shield, it said, is the fulfilment of the propaganda spouted by Netanyahu last month to cover up his failure to deter the Palestinian resistance in Gaza.

“You are only seeing a partial picture of the ongoing operation we are engaged in,” Netanyahu told the Israeli public at the end of the two-day escalation last month. “I will not say tonight when we will act and what we will do… But I have a clear plan.” It was “impossible,” he insisted, to make public some of the details. According to the Times of Israel, many Israelis did not believe Netanyahu’s “concern for the country’s security situation,” but preferred to believe that this was to avoid an early election. Indeed, the news website expects the Prime Minister to announce the appointment of a foreign minister or a defence minister to prop up his ailing coalition government. “We are in the midst of a military campaign,” he told journalists. “The security of the state is above all else.”

What’s more, said Al-Naami, the exercise along Israel’s norther border is much less than a real operation targeting tunnels allegedly dug by Hezbollah. “Netanyahu recognises that Israeli military activity inside Israel does not lead to a confrontation. All he wants is to cause some suspense about the operation to divert attention from possible corruption charges.”

Meanwhile, another Palestinian specialist in Israeli affairs Momen Migdad, explained that when the Israeli occupation army carries out a real military operation, it starts with sudden, concentrated and intensified air and artillery strikes. “However, since Tuesday morning, there has been no announcement by the Israeli occupation army of a state of emergency or request for the people living in Southern Lebanon to go to their shelters.” For the IDF and Netanyahu to describe the discovery of a tunnel as a major achievement, he added, is a bit of a joke, and a massive exaggeration. “Netanyahu aims to deter the opposition and embarrass it.”

READ: About a War 

Knesset member Yoel Hasson agreed that the announcement about the operation in the north is an attempt to divert attention from the police recommendations to indict Netanyahu. He called for the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee to convene urgently and discuss the issue. “The timing [of the operation] … cheapens the army as well as Israel’s security interests, and shows particular disregard for residents in the north,” the head of the opposition bloc said. “Is it Operation Northern Shield or Operation Netanyahu Shield?”

One commentator took an entirely different line. Gal Berger of Kan Public Broadcasting claimed that the IDF “operation” is being used by Netanyahu to divert Israeli eyes from “the bags of Qatari cash” destined for Gaza and going through Israel in the days ahead.

Despite all of this scepticism, the IDF Chief of General Staff, Gadi Eisenkot, pointed out that the Israeli cabinet approved the operation on 7 November. The “Hezbollah tunnels,” he insisted, are now a “direct threat to Israel’s northern communities and army bases.” Eisenkot’s claim was compromised, though, when Ofir Gendelman, the spokesman to the Arab media for the Prime Minister’s office, explained that Israel has “been following the digging of the offensive tunnels by Hezbollah for years.”

If the tunnels have been monitored “for years”, why have they suddenly become a direct threat now even though no major change has taken place on the northern front since the end of the 2006 Israeli offensive against Lebanon? Netanyahu still needs to provide persuasive details about the operation to prove that it is real, and that he is not simply exploiting his expanding power as Prime, Foreign and Defence Minister to avoid prosecution and an early General Election.

READ: Palestinian resistance imposes new rules of engagement with Israel 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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