My Word: Digging up Hezbollah’s dirty work

On my office wall, tatty and fading, is a souvenir from the days of my army service in the northern branch of the IDF’s Liaison Unit to the UN Forces. It has been hanging around so long that most of the time I forget it’s there. It’s become part of the wallpaper, as it were. But this week I suddenly saw it in a new light.

It’s a certificate that UN soldiers distributed as a joke in the early 1980s, in the period leading up to what would become known as the First Lebanon War. The text certifies that the bearer “has been fired at by the Syrians whilst on duty and is hereby admitted as a member of ‘The Order of the Sitting Duck.’”

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Even then, I suppose, that could have easily been changed to “The Order of the Lame Duck.”

Israel on December 4 launched Operation Northern Shield and publicly exposed a Hezbollah-built terror tunnel, running from inside a home in the southern Lebanese village of Kafr Kila and ending up on the Israeli side of the border in a field just outside the town of Metulla. Not for the first time I wondered what UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, was actually doing; especially while all this digging was going on under its nose, or right under its military boots, for years.

UNIFIL recently missed a bird of a different feather – another Hezbollah canard. In October, the IDF announced that it had uncovered an observation post used by the terrorist group about a kilometer from Israel’s northern border, the sixth such post discovered in the past couple of years.

Cynically, the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist organization had tried to conceal the intelligence-gathering point as a birdwatching station for a fictional environmental NGO it called “Green Without Borders.”

The hidden Hezbollah post was located in the village of al-Adisa, just across the border from Kibbutz Misgav Am, where, in 1980, five Palestinian terrorists held hostage a group of toddlers sleeping in the kibbutz children’s house. A two-year-old and an adult kibbutz member were killed in the attack, along with an Israeli soldier participating in the rescue.

Hezbollah’s terrorist infrastructure, like that of Hamas – its ugly twin in Gaza – is supported at great expense by Iran. Both terrorist organizations have a history of kidnapping and murdering Israeli soldiers and citizens. Whatever birdwatching Hezbollah members were engaged in, it had nothing to do with a dove of peace.

The terror tunnel revealed this week, part of a network of tunnels, could be even more sinister than those the IDF has blocked from Gaza, aimed at penetrating communities in the Negev.

Substantially broader than Hamas’s tunnels, Israeli authorities believe the one exposed this week was meant to be used as part of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s threats to “conquer the Galilee.” In addition, Hezbollah is reportedly constructing subterranean factories where it can produce sophisticated rockets, out of sight but not out of mind. Hezbollah’s tunnels aren’t a tactical threat but a strategic one.

Last weekend, warning “There will be a response to every Israeli attack in Lebanon,” Nasrallah released a video featuring potential targets in Israel, including the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, an oil refinery and the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona.

A day after the start of Operation Northern Shield, Nasrallah remained strangely silent, probably having gone figuratively or literally underground. More disturbing, there was no initial response – let alone a condemnation – from UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov. Surely the UN envoy couldn’t have been left speechless by evidence of Hezbollah’s ongoing aggression? Perhaps the UN feels uncomfortable at criticizing the proxy of Iran, whose funds were boosted in 2015 by the nuclear deal.

Hezbollah flagrantly violates UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which set the terms to end the month-long Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. And like Hamas, Hezbollah is using local residents as human shields.

If UNIFIL is watching Hezbollah but not capable of acting on what it sees, it might as well train its binoculars on the skies and watch the birds instead. By doing nothing, it is aiding the terrorist organization. It also gives the wrong message elsewhere. United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) peacekeepers are meant to be safeguarding the border between Israel and Syria. Not that Israel has high expectations. When Islamist terrorist groups took over the area in 2014 during the Syrian civil war, far from being able to keep the peace, UNDOF became the target for kidnappings and attacks and eventually had to be evacuated – to flee, in less subtle words – with Israel’s help.

Israel is now dealing not only with the facts on the ground – or under the ground, in this case – but also readying for the possibility that Nasrallah, when he recovers from the shock of having his dirty secrets exposed, will order a massive rocket onslaught in response. Israeli officials are also preparing for diplomatic fallout. Lebanon’s National News Agency on December 5 reported the Lebanese would submit a complaint to the UN about “repeated Israeli violations.”

Presumably the topic was high on the agenda when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels the day before Northern Shield commenced. In a press briefing with The Israel Project and on Israel Radio, former National Security Council head Maj.-Gen. Yaakov Amidror, a senior researcher at the JISS think tank, said the timing of the operation could be explained by three factors: the technological component, i.e. the ability to detect the tunnels; the operative component, having the means to neutralize and destroy the tunnels; and the diplomatic component, being able to explain why Israel is taking the action and gaining legitimacy for what might come next, including an escalation.

It should also be noted that along with the tunnel infrastructure, Israel is dealing with the ongoing influx of Iranian arms to Hezbollah – including precision-guided missiles.

The timing was not, as his rivals tried to portray, dependent on the prime minister’s legal and political problems. The IDF has been quietly working on finding a solution to detecting and destroying these tunnels for years – all the while dismissing the fears of local residents who repeatedly said they could hear the drilling. And Netanyahu is acutely aware that any such operation involves huge risks.

Hezbollah’s tunnels don’t so much cross a redline as dig deep under it – waiting for the day that a large force of armed terrorists could suddenly burst out of the ground in Israeli sovereign territory. Tehran might be thousands of miles away, but Iran’s forces and proxies are right on the doorstep, trying to break in without being detected.

The network of Hezbollah terror tunnels provides two sobering lessons to Israel. Even in the missile-warfare age, land matters. Those advocating territorial compromises need to realize just how shaky the ground will be if terror tunnels are being dug below the surface. This, of course, includes Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). No less important, Israel has once again learned that ultimately it can rely only on its own soldiers, not international peacekeeping forces.

But there is a lesson in this, too, for Nasrallah and the Iranian leadership: They need to know that the light at the end of the tunnel is being held by an Israeli soldier.

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