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Israel’s tunnel operation on Lebanon border betrays its weakened position

Israeli military vehicles during the operation to 'expose and thwart' cross-border tunnels allegedly dug by Hezbollah along border with Lebanon on 5 December 2018 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]
Israeli military vehicles during the operation to 'expose and thwart' cross-border tunnels allegedly dug by Hezbollah along border with Lebanon on 5 December 2018 [Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency]

Israel’s operation on the Lebanese border earlier this month to destroy cross-border tunnels, has once again raised the temperature in that most volatile part of the Levant.

By accusing the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah of digging the tunnels, in what the Israelis frame as a “grave” violation of their sovereignty, Israel may be preparing the ground for an extended period of tension on the Lebanon-Israel frontier.

The operation comes on the heels of the Israeli military’s release of satellite images purporting to show three sites in Beirut allegedly used by Hezbollah as “underground” precision missile facilities.

The claim about alleged covert missile “conversion” facilities near Beirut airport had originally been made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his speech to the United Nations in late September.

In recent years Israel has had to endure watching Hezbollah gain in strength as the group successfully prosecuted a counter-insurgency campaign in Syria. Dozens of Israeli air strikes in Syria over several years have failed to stop the group’s momentum and its continual acquisition of ever more sophisticated weapons and military equipment.

READ: UN peacekeepers say two tunnels at Israel border breached UN resolution

In view of this abject failure, Israel may be tempted to take direct action against Hezbollah to arrest its momentum. But by all credible accounts any new war will produce an even worse outcome for the Jewish state than the war of Summer 2006.

Propaganda exercise

Israel’s tunnel operation appears to have been sparked by a genuine security concern as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has confirmed that two of the four tunnels discovered cross the “Blue Line” – the border demarcation between Lebanon and Israel.

But it is not the verifiable facts that is of primary importance here but the spin which Israel is trying to place on them. The Israeli assertion that the tunnels violate its sovereignty, in addition to breaching United Nations resolution 1701 which ended the summer 2006 war, is strictly speaking true.

But Israel is hardly in a position to complain about the violation of sovereignty in view of the fact that it routinely violates the sovereignty of its neighbours, in particular Syria’s through air strikes, not to mention the almost daily violation of Lebanese air space.

READ: US rejects Israel’s request to sanction Lebanon

The fanfare surrounding Israel’s discovery of four tunnels near the frontier is more about propaganda and public relations than a demonstration of a proportionate response to a security threat. Moreover, it exposes Israel’s weakened position in the wake of the winding down of the Syrian conflict.

Heightened Vulnerability

The increasingly bellicose rhetoric by the Israeli prime minister and the army has touched off speculation that the Jewish state may be on the brink of launching yet another war of aggression against Lebanon.

Whilst a full-fledged conflict my not be imminent, nevertheless the immediate geopolitical picture does not bode well for the stability of the Lebanon-Israel frontier. The over-riding issue is Israel’s heightened sense of vulnerability in the face of major strategic and operational setbacks in neighbouring Syria.

The decision by the Trump administration to pull US troops out of Syria only adds to Israel’s sense of loss and isolation. But even before this major development there were several indications that Israel’s ability to influence the post-conflict phase of the Syria crisis has been significantly diminished.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a joint press conference with Russia's President Vladimir Putin (not seen) after their bilateral meeting in Helsinki, Finland on 16 July, 2018 [Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

US President Donald Trump [Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

The decision by Russia to supply the S-300 surface to air anti-aircraft missiles to Syria following the crash of a Russian military aircraft in September was widely viewed as a warning by Russia to Israel to wind down its regular air raids on Syria-based targets.

Even though the aircraft was accidentally shot down by Syrian air defences – with the loss of 15 servicemen – the Russians blamed the incident on Israel as the accident occurred in the midst of an Israeli air raid on Latakia.

The loss of Russian support unfolded against the worst possible backdrop, namely the entrenchment of the Iranian position in Syria. This consolidation has taken shape despite Israel’s best efforts to stop it, notably by conducting over 200 airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria since 2017.

The withdrawal of US forces from eastern Syria significantly bolsters Iran’s standing, and by extension undermines Israel’s position even further. The combination of these setbacks, including the loss of Russian support, Iran’s apparently unassailable position and a complete American withdrawal, may force Israel into a corner, thus raising the appeal of irrational choices.

To that end, more tension on the Lebanon-Israel frontier is likely in the weeks and months ahead. As for the prospect of a full-fledged war, the most effective brake on Israeli adventurism is the acute realisation that a new war of choice in Lebanon will have far more devastating consequences for Israel than the last war more than a decade ago.

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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