Northern Israel was covered by thick fog during the weekend with near-zero visibility. The rain came and went, mostly drizzling and turning everything that was not concrete into mud.
Someone just passing through would probably be unable to tell anything was wrong or that the entire area was on edge. The partial military restrictions imposed on a section of the border when “Operation Northern Shield” was launched last week have already been lifted, and nothing could be said for a military presence beyond the sporadic military vehicle driving around. For all intents and purposes, this was just another rainy Saturday in northern Israel.
This facade, however, successfully hid the military’s nonstop efforts to neutralize Hezbollah terror tunnels snaking under the Israel-Lebanon border.
The decision to continue the search for tunnels over the weekend was unorthodox, and not only because it involved operations on Shabbat. The work was hindered by the stormy weather, but the complex engineering and logistics effort involved in this intense operation never waned. If anything, the IDF kept pushing and everyone—from GOC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick to the last special combat engineering soldier deployed on the ground—seemed to be accelerating the pace.
The Israeli operation is currently underway in several locations simultaneously. One of them is a tunnel running under the northern town of Metula and on Saturday afternoon, another significant tunnel was discovered.
A security incident interrupted the work on Saturday when IDF commandos securing the operation came across three Hezbollah operatives trying to exploit the fog to steal technical equipment. The troops opened fire and the three fled, but the incident stressed the prudence of increasing military deployment along the border, as the threat is very real.
Hezbollah may be biding its time quietly at the moment, but it very well may retaliate—not just verbally (though Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is sure to give a fiery speech eventually), but also physically, in the battlefield. There is real concern that Hezbollah operatives could booby-trap one of the tunnels, use the weather to plant roadside bombs or try to target the Israeli troops with sniper fire.
These scenarios are passed on to the soldiers in every security briefing. Anyone who scoffed at the fact that this military activity was labeled an “operation” is welcome to visit the border and see how palpable the threat actually is.
The military effort on the ground is only part of the overall effort. In the background, the Israeli Air Force is gearing up for potential escalation, and Military Intelligence is fully engaged as well.
Another important aspect is the international diplomatic effort, where Israel engages in massive public diplomacy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been briefing world leaders on the issue since last week, including, and perhaps most importantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The U.N. Security Council is expected to discuss a draft resolution condemning Lebanon on Monday over the fact that it turns a blind eye to Hezbollah’s activities, and Israel would like to see Russia refrain from using its veto power on the issue.
Israel would like to see international pressure on the Lebanese government stir up a public debate in the country and prompt criticism of the Shi’ite terrorist group, despite the considerable political power it wields. Lebanon has so far remained indifferent, but it is doubtful whether Beirut could keep that up for long. “Operation Northern Shield” is expected to last several weeks, and the daily media attention to the issue will turn the spotlight on Lebanon’s actions or lack thereof.
Still, nothing essential is likely to change, except, of course, for the fact that Israel has deprived Hezbollah of a major strategic asset. This cannot be taken lightly, as one need not have a particularly wild imagination to understand what Hezbollah had planned for Metula and other Israeli communities along the border. Some of the tunnels were on the verge of becoming operational in the coming weeks. If an attack had been launched using those tunnels, the first question for the political echelon and the IDF would have been, “If you knew, why didn’t you do anything?”
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.