On December 4, 2018, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) announced that it had discovered a secret tunnel built by the terrorist group Hezbollah that begins in Lebanon, extends under Israel’s most northern border, and ends just south of Israel’s northern-most town, Metula. 

The tunnel itself is only 656 feet long, but it descends more than 80 feet underground and crosses under the border separating Lebanon from Israel. Once in Israel, the tunnel extends another 130 feet before emerging just south of Metula, Israel’s northern-most town. 

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) found the tunnel at the beginning of a military initiative called “Operation Northern Shield”, which Israel launched to find and destroy Hezbollah’s ‘terror tunnels’. 

The IDF reported that the tunnel was equipped with ventilation systems, electrical wiring, and communication lines and, measuring roughly seven feet tall and seven feet wide, was considerably larger, than the tunnels they had seen in Gaza. 

According to Netanyahu, Hezbollah had been planning to send entire battalions into Israel through tunnels like this, in order to commandeer territory, and to kidnap and murder Israeli civilians and soldiers. “If you look at the Hamas tunnels,” he said, “they’re very narrow, basically for one person. The Hezbollah tunnels are broad. They enable several people to come at once and also to put motorcycles, I’m pretty sure tractors, and so on.”  

Had this tunnel become operable, it would have enabled Hezbollah to enter Israel secretly and to launch a surprise attack on Metula. The town commands access to much of northern Israel, so with Hezbollah strategically positioned in Metula, Israel’s security could have been severely compromised.

Only days after the announcement about the first tunnel, two more tunnels were reported. And, according to the IDF, there are many more. Operation Northern Shield aims to find and destroy them all.  

A senior officer in the IDF Northern Command commented that Hezbollah was no doubt “surprised” that Israel had learned of its tunnel project, and suggested that the terrorist group leadership was now struggling to determine how much Israel actually knows. Hezbollah has been monitoring military activity along Lebanon’s border with Israel closely, but Israel keeps its real secrets well hidden. Details of the finds (such as the real number of tunnels the IDF has actually identified) have not been released, for security reasons. 

Much of what Israel knows is still secret, and would no doubt keep Hezbollah’s leaders up at night. If Hezbollah is ‘surprised’ to know that Israel has discovered its tunnel-building activity, it would be ‘astonished’ to know that Israel has known about these tunnels for nearly a decade.

Cross-border tunnels are an old story for Israel

The IDF’s first confrontation with ‘terror tunnels’ came from Gaza on Israel’s southern border as early as 2004. The tunnels were built for terrorist raids against Israel from under the Israel-Gaza border. 

Then in 2010, Hamas raised the stakes. Hamas terrorists used an early cross-border tunnel to enter Israel undetected. They attacked an Israeli Army patrol, kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, and took him back through the tunnel into Gaza, where he was held captive for more than five years. He was released in a massive prisoner exchange – one Israeli soldier for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. (The Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Hayat reported that the prisoners released in this lopsided deal were collectively responsible for the killing of 569 Israelis.)

By 2014, the situation along the Gaza border had become critical. At the same time that Hamas continued to use the terror tunnels to attack Israel, a constant barrage of rockets from Gaza had Israeli towns near the border under siege. In July of that year, the IDF launched an assault on Hamas that Israel called “Operation Protective Edge”.  During that conflict, the IDF destroyed 32 tunnels, including fourteen cross-border terror tunnels.

The History of the Hezbollah tunnels 

While the world has long been familiar with the cross-border tunnels that Hamas has been building from Gaza into Israel, tunnels from Lebanon into Israel are news. Except to those in the know in Israel’s military and intelligence communities. For them, it is also an old story.

Hezbollah began constructing tunnels inside Lebanon many years before they began building the cross-border tunnels. Assisted by Iranian money and North Korean technology, this activity created a complex network of tunnels that crisscrossed southern Lebanon. The tunnels, many of which were built inside the caves that dot the sides of the Lebanese mountains, were used to hide the tens of thousands of missiles and rockets that Iran was transporting through Syria into Lebanon.

Weapons and ammunition from Iran were stowed with luggage and other cargo in Iranian passenger planes flying from Iran to Syria. Once in Syria, large trucks, covered by tarps to hide their payloads, transported the weapons through Syria and across eastern Lebanon to the tunnels, where weapons and personnel could be hidden, and from which they could be transferred, away from the surveillance of over-flights, drones, and satellites, and from IDF retaliation. By 2010, there were an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles hidden in caves and beneath the thick tree canopies in orchards and forests throughout southern Lebanon. Many of the missiles were aimed at Israel and were ready to deploy. 

Then, in 2009, eye-witness reports from Lebanon revealed that Hezbollah was building cross-border tunnels, originating from various locations along the border and leading underground into Israel. One was said to be a small bore tunnel through which an armed child fighter could crawl and attack an Israeli kibbutz along the border. Another tunnel was reported to be large enough to accommodate a truck and long enough to reach deep into a major Israeli population center. (Plans for this tunnel had to be redrawn, according to the report, because the air handling system could not remove the exhaust fumes created by the trucks, and Hezbollah fighters were getting sick from the bad air in the tunnel.) Other reports described tunnels wide enough for several fighters to travel through at once. 

Were these reports just gossip? Or Hezbollah propaganda? Maybe, but they are now nearly ten years old, and the tunnels that have been recently exposed show the truth of these reports. The also demonstrate how determined Hezbollah has been to create a system of tunnels, not just one or two, to cross deep under the border and penetrate Israeli territory in multiple places for the purpose of staging deadly terror attacks against Israelis.

By 2010, the threat was already known and growing, and it was a perfect opportunity for Israel to legitimately respond. But there were a number of obstacles that stood in the way of the IDF acting on all this information. 

Why didn’t Israel respond to the initial reports?

Several things happened to divert Israel’s attention from the northern threat. Among other things, the cross-border tunnels were very deep, the intelligence had to be verified, and Israel’s tunnel-finding technology was far less sophisticated eight years ago than it is today. 

Moreover, in March 2011, a very un-civil war broke out in Syria. Iran came to the rescue of President Bashar Assad, calling on 5,000 Hezbollah fighters and an equal number of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers to protect the President in Damascus. A reverse transfer of rockets and missiles began. Thousands of missiles were taken from the tunnels in southern Lebanon back into Syria to support Assad’s regime. The threat from Lebanon was, at least temporarily, reduced.

And then there was Hamas in Gaza. After a relative lull in fighting with Hamas, a new conflict broke out on March 30, 2018. Hamas began weekly, violent demonstrations at the Gaza-Israel border, the war of fire balloons and fire kites that ignited large sections of Israeli farmland and nature preserves, weekly frontal attacks on the border, and a new round of rocket attacks against Israeli towns. Israel’s first priority was clearly to devote its attention to these threats from Hamas. The threat from the northern border would just have to wait.

Israel applies advanced technology to the threat

In the meantime, once the tunnel threat was known, Israel embarked on an aggressive R&D campaign to significantly upgrade its tunnel-finding capabilities. A new hi-tech detection system was needed to eliminate the threat posed by Hamas’ underground tunnels.

A highly motivated team began working on developing a tunnel- detection system. Over the years, Israel spent more than $250 million on research and development to create an effective. technology-based system of counter-measures. Scores of Israeli companies, organizations, and civilian researchers participated in this ongoing project. The U.S. also added $120 million over the last three years to support Israeli R&D in its anti-tunnel program.  

The anti-tunnel system that is now being deployed along the Lebanon border includes specially designed seismic sensors and transmitters that can monitor vibrations from deep underground, identify the length of a tunnel as well as its exact location, and transmit the information to a monitoring and control system. The new technology will enable the IDF to find and track tunnel construction along the entire length of its border with Lebanon with precision.

The growing threat from Hezbollah

Israel’s awareness of the growing threat from the north was one of the primary reasons why the cabinet decided not to launch a major military campaign against Hamas in Gaza earlier in 2018, for which Netanyahu’s government came under blistering attack.  But as the knowledge of Hezbollah’s developing program for attacking Israel became clearer, the need for urgency also became clear.

Hezbollah is arguably one of the largest and most militarily capable terror organizations in the world today. Its weapons are more powerful, its tactics more sophisticated, and the technology it uses is more advanced, than that of most other terrorist groups. This power is the result of the massive technological, military, and financial support it receives from Iran. Hezbollah’s arsenal has now returned to its former size of at least 150,000 missiles and rockets, and it is fully capable of raining down on Israel a terrible terror attack from the skies. 

Hezbollah was the creation of Iran to be its military proxy in Lebanon and Syria, and has been trained, funded, and deployed by Teheran since its inception. Its operations, which began in Lebanon in 1982 with the bombings of the American Embassy and the U.S. and French military barracks in Beirut, now span the world from the heart of South America to Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America. 

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has systematically taken over the government, and set up a mini-state in Southern Lebanon. Over the years, Hezbollah has fired thousands of rockets into Israel’s populated centers from southern Lebanon, and has been responsible for the deaths of many Israeli civilians living or working along the border. It is also responsible for killing more Americans than any other terrorist group except al-Qaeda. 

Hezbollah operates as a multi-faceted organization: a political party, a mini-state, and an international terrorist organization. The common misperception is that these organizations are separate and distinct. They are not. They are integrated parts of a whole organization that work together and support each other’s operations. 

The Syrian War and Hezbollah

The war in Syria that began in 2011 was a game changer for Hezbollah. When Iran ordered 5,000 of Hezbollah’s best fighters into Syria to defend Assad, Hezbollah’s forces in Lebanon were greatly weakened. But the Syrian experience gave those who survived the fighting much valuable experience on the battlefield, although it is estimated that as much as a third of its forces in Syria may have been killed or injured in the conflict. While world attention was turned to the war in Syria, Lebanon was relatively quiet and took a back seat. 

In 2015, Russia joined the effort to save Assad, and added air power, sea power, and electronic warfare to the powerful mix of Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Russia’s somewhat tenuous but functional relationship with Israel further complicated the tactical situation. 

Today, as the Syrian war winds down, Hezbollah’s elite Radwan Force, whose special forces have been gaining experience from their time in Syria, has been returning to Lebanon to continue its operations against Israel. The Radwan Force soldiers are prepared to infiltrate towns, launch massacres of the local civilians, and take captives to use as hostages in future prisoner exchanges. The terrorist organization calls this “Occupation of the Galilee”. 

Hezbollah vs. Israel

Hezbollah’s leaders have been rattling their sabers. “The entire State of Israel is within range of Hezbollah’s missiles,” said the group’s deputy secretary-general Sheikh Naim Qassem. 

“There is not a single point in the occupied territories out of reach of Hezbollah’s missiles,” as reported by al-Vefagh, an Iranian Arabic-language outlet. “The Zionists cannot tolerate such a high level of threats in confrontation with Hezbollah, which is why they have no motive for entering another war with Lebanon”.

Strong words. But this bluster may be badly misplaced, because while Israel is a tiny country, in which nearly every member of the adult population must participate in its security, Israel has a powerful military and an indomitable spirit, and will do whatever is necessary to survive. 

Operation Northern Shield

By the end of the summer of 2018, the clashes along the Gaza border, the balloons carrying explosives and massive fires caused by kites carrying Molotov cocktails were terrorizing Israelis living in the region. Residents were calling for the government to launch an attack on the Hamas terrorists. But the government stalled. It already knew about the tunnels and the secret was kept until the time was right. The discovery of the Metula tunnel made the decision to embark on Operation Northern Shield necessary. 

The decision was taken on November 7th. Lest Hamas takes Operation Northern Shield as an invitation for new aggressive action against Israel from Gaza, Netanyahu has made it crystal clear that Israel is ready to engage on two fronts, if necessary. And to underscore the government’s support for Operation Northern Shield, units of Israel’s Army, Air Force, and Navy were also deployed to the north.

Israel says it does not want to escalate the confrontation by operating on the Lebanese side of the border. To that end, the IDF command invited the UNIFIL commander to see the tunnel near Metula, and gave him aerial photos of another tunnel in Lebanese village of Ramyeh. He officially protested Hezbollah’s violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, and strongly urged UNIFIL to neutralize the Hezbollah tunnels from the Lebanese side. 

The UN peacekeeping force confirmed the existence of a tunnel between the two countries and described it as a “serious occurrence”.

In reality, it is because  of UNIFIL’s inability to do its job as peacekeeper, that Israel now faces the threat posed by the tunnels that UNIFIL declined to either report or stop. UNIFIL has consistently failed to do its job, as the ongoing conflict along the border and the discovery of the tunnels clearly demonstrates. The hopes that UNIFIL will make a difference here are bound to be dashed. 

Although Israel has gone out of its way to avoid escalating the confrontation in Lebanon and taken no action beyond the border, Israeli leaders have left no doubt that if it becomes necessary, they will move the fight into Lebanon.  

“If we think that, in order to thwart the tunnels, one needs to operate on the other side, then we will operate on the other side of the border,” said Israel Katz, intelligence and transport minister. And Netanyahu underscored the point with clarity: “Operation Northern Shield has just begun, but at the end of it, “the tunnels weapon, in which Hezbollah has invested so much, will not exist 

The Future at the Northern Border

In a future war, Hezbollah’s primary tactics will be to launch thousands of missiles and rockets at Israel, while “open[ing] the way for hundreds or even thousands of fighters from all over the Arab and Islamic world to participate.” (Nasrallah)

An IDF Home Front Command report describes the additional threat of 1,000-1,500 rockets and missiles that Hezbollah will launch into Israel, the thousands of homes that will be hit, and the hundreds of Israeli civilians will be injured or killed. Hundreds of thousands more Israelis are expected to be evacuated from their homes. 

Despite Israel’s excellent air defense systems, which are among the best in the world, an overwhelming swarm attack of hundreds of simultaneous rockets and missiles would be impossible to confront. It is a recipe for a disaster of monstrous proportions. 

But what would then follow would be a catastrophe for Lebanon as well, because for all of Hezbollah’s weaponry, Israel’s military power would strike a mighty retaliatory blow against all of southern Lebanon. 

Netanyahu has made it very clear. “If Hezbollah makes a big mistake and decides in any way to harm us or to resist the operation we are conducting, it will be dealt unimaginable blows,” he said. “Hezbollah thought that it could dig unhindered. We knew, we planned, and it did not leak. We maintained secrecy; we planned carefully. We are carrying out exactly what we planned but we are ready for the unexpected. There is great firepower here. We are ready for it and are prepared for it from all sides.”

In a future war, southern Lebanon’s civilians, hostages to Hezbollah’s insatiable and brutal thirst for power, would be the tragic casualties from Israel’s retaliation. Because, unlike conventional military forces, Hezbollah targets civilians and civilian infrastructure rather than military targets. And the civilians it targets are frequently its own. Hezbollah has placed rockets, munitions, bombs, and the openings to terror tunnels into private homes and civilian buildings in nearly every village in southern Lebanon. 

In short, Hezbollah has turned southern Lebanon into its own human shield. And because of this, nearly every town and village in southern Lebanon has become a legitimate military target. The IDF has therefore reluctantly concluded that in the next war in Lebanon, there will be many civilian casualties – in Israel and Lebanon. 

The lines have been drawn, and Israel is preparing for whatever may come next. The strong support it now receives from Washington provides Jerusalem with an added measure of confidence as it faces enemies from both the north and the south. Israel does not take the prospect of war lightly. But should war come – once again – to challenge Israel’s existence, the nation’s resolve and determination to survive will show its enemies that it is a force to be reckoned with and that the price of poking the tiger will be severe.