The complex game of chess on the Israel-Lebanon border saw the Israel Defense Forces take one of Hezbollah’s rooks or knights, but not its king or queen.
In other words, while “Operation Northern Shield,” seeking to thwart Hezbollah tunnels snaking under the security fence, marks a serious achievement for Israel and deals Hezbollah a massive blow, it by no means spells the kind of checkmate that could determine the outcome of a future war in Lebanon.
Hezbollah planned its tunnel grid as a strategic surprise (now lost), but that is not what will change its plans. Hezbollah has bigger problems, namely the political turmoil in Lebanon and the economic crisis plaguing it, both of which are aggravated by the looming prospect of a wider-scale Israeli operation against its precision-missile production sites in Lebanon.
Israel’s focus on Hezbollah’s missile upgrade efforts was precisely what allowed the IDF to take the Shi’ite terrorist group by surprise on Tuesday. Intelligence about Hezbollah’s tunnel-digging enterprise was diligently gathered and documented over a long period of time, providing conclusive evidence as part of the international public-diplomacy campaign Israel is mounting while operations on the ground continue.
With all due respect to IDF bulldozers, the real objective of “Operation Northern Shield” is meant for the international community The Israeli message is clear: Hezbollah violated U.N. Resolution 1701 (which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War) and breached Israeli sovereignty, and its actions may bring a war to the region.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and his Iranian patrons remained mum Tuesday, proving they were caught red-handed. It was only last Thursday that Hezbollah urged the Lebanese government to protect its airspace from “Israeli aggression,” and now it turns out it is involved in a highly precarious endeavor.
Israel hopes exposing Hezbollah’s tunnels will spark an internal debate within Lebanon as to the Shi’ite terrorist group’s assertion that it is the country’s ”defender,” as its actions clearly jeopardize Lebanon’s security.
“Operation Northern Shield” is expected to continue for several weeks. The IDF is currently working to neutralize one tunnel near Metula and has several other tunnels in its sights. The operation is currently taking place solely on Israeli soil, but it may entail operating in Lebanese territory as well, something Israel is likely to do only if it is sure Hezbollah would be able to contain such action.
This teaches us that deterrence works both ways. The origins of the tunnel breaching Metula is just a few dozen feet from the Lebanese side of the border. Under normal circumstances, the IDF would cross the border and destroy it, but right now it cannot do that, so as to avoid escalation.
This is a prudent decision, on two conditions: first, that the tunnels can be completely destroyed from the Israeli side; and second, that Hezbollah will not conclude that Israel is completely averse to operating in Lebanese territory.
Given Hezbollah’s armament efforts, the stakes are much higher and if Hezbollah is led to believe it has any kind of immunity, the price Israel will be made to pay in the future will be much higher.
Hezbollah may have wanted to use the tunnels as a tactical instrument, but one must remember that it doesn’t really need them to stage an incursion into an Israeli community near the border. The tunnels’ strength lies in the element of surprise, but Hezbollah’s real strength lies with its sizeable missile arsenal and tens of thousands of operatives.
Israel must focus its efforts on generating deterrence and the fact that the United States is willing to impose new sanctions on Hezbollah will surely help, but the Shi’ite terrorist group will find a way around that as well—that much we know from past experience.
And two side notes: First, speculations that there are ulterior motives to the timing of this operation are baseless. Those in the know are familiar with the timetable and the process that preceded greenlighting this operation; and those who need to know understand that the timing was based on intelligence and technological considerations, and that once the opportunity presented itself, the operation was a go.
Second, the media attention the operation received was a tad overboard. Exposing the tunnels was a significant achievement, but it did not fundamentally change the situation vis-à-vis Hezbollah. Israel still has a myriad of challenges to overcome on the Lebanese front.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.