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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Israel’s Operation Against Hezbollah’s Attack Tunnels

U.N. peacekeepers hold the U.N. flag while standing next to Hezbollah and Lebanese flags, near the site where Israel is working to find and destroy Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels, on Dec. 13. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Israel’s Operation Against Hezbollah’s Attack Tunnels

In the predawn hours of Dec. 3, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) initiated Operation Northern Shield. This operation is designed to find and destroy attack tunnels dug from Lebanon into Israel by the Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah. Designed to facilitate attacks on and kidnappings of Israelis, these tunnels blatantly violate Israeli sovereignty as well as numerous U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.

Operating entirely on Israel’s side of the border, the IDF has thus far uncovered four attack tunnels, starting in residential Lebanese neighborhoods and leading toward Israeli communities.

These tunnels—which have been rightfully condemned by many countries, including the United States, Germany, Bahrain and the United Kingdom—serve as a reminder to the world of Hezbollah’s malign intentions.

The United States should continue to stand with Israel as it defends its citizens from the threat posed by this terrorist organization.

Background: UNIFIL and the “Disarmament” of Hezbollah

Hezbollah attacks against Israel precipitated the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Thereafter, the UNSC passed Resolution 1701 to strengthen the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the peacekeeping force it had created in 1978.

The 2006 resolution charged UNIFIL with countering Hezbollah efforts to rearm. Bolstering UNIFIL to more than seven times its previous size, the new mandate authorized UNIFIL to “take all necessary action” to ensure that southern Lebanon was free of “any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL.”

But UNIFIL has failed to achieve this mission. Although authorized to use force, UNIFIL is constrained by the need to win approval for its actions from a Lebanese government largely controlled by Hezbollah. Accordingly, UNIFIL does not even perform as an effective observation force. It has consistently failed to detect or counter virtually all Hezbollah violations of UNSC Resolution 1701.

In fact, Hezbollah decidedly controls the U.N. peacekeeping force’s area of operation. The terrorist group possesses an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles—more than 10 times what it had in 2006—some of which are capable of striking any part of Israel. With the assistance of Iran, virtually all of southern Lebanon is now a maze of Hezbollah’s underground bunkers, command posts, rocket-launch sites and interconnecting tunnels. According to the IDF, one out of every three or four houses in south Lebanon now hosts a Hezbollah base, post, weapons depot or hideout.

Hezbollah’s Plan: “Conquering the Galilee”

For years, Hezbollah has been working to build the cross-border underground tunnel network as a part of its strategy for attacking Israel. Hezbollah’s offensive strategy, known as “Conquering the Galilee,” is designed to “shift the battlefield to Israel” in a future conflict. The strategy, which Israel first learned about in 2012, would entail fighters in the terrorist organization’s elite Radwan unit infiltrating Israeli territory using the tunnels to attack and kidnap civilians and capture border communities.

The IDF also suspects that the tunnels—at least one of which is 600 feet long, six feet by six feet wide, up to 150 feet deep and outfitted with electrical and communication lines and ventilation—were meant to allow entire battalions to infiltrate Israel in conjunction with an above-ground mass invasion of operatives and the simultaneous launching of missiles, rockets and mortars.

Hezbollah Uses Human Shields; Congress Responds

The first Hezbollah tunnel exposed by Israel originates in a private home in the Lebanese village of Kafr Kila. The tunnel’s placement in a civilian area illustrates Hezbollah’s deliberate and longstanding use of human shields, which clearly violates international law and endangers innocents by placing terrorist infrastructure among civilian populations.

On Dec. 11, the U.S. Congress passed the Sanctioning the Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act to push back against this abhorrent practice. This timely, bipartisan legislation mandates new sanctions against Hezbollah, Hamas and foreign state agencies for using civilians as human shields or providing support to those doing so.

While the urgency of this legislation is demonstrated by the recent tunnel uncovered under a home, this is certainly not the only example of Hezbollah’s use of human shields. Hezbollah has a long history of installing its terrorist infrastructure in mosques, hospitals, homes and schools.

The Way Forward

The United States should continue to exert maximum political, diplomatic and economic pressure on Hezbollah, while supporting Israel’s right and ability to defend itself from this threat.

America must encourage a far more effective international campaign against the group, to include urging the European Union to designate Hezbollah—in its entirety—as a terrorist organization.

In addition, the administration must increase enforcement of existing sanctions against Hezbollah and its sponsors, including full implementation of the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act of 2018.

Congress must continue to support funding for Israel’s vital missile- and rocket-defense programs—including Arrow, David’s Sling and Iron Dome—which would be critical in any future conflict with Hezbollah. It is estimated that Hezbollah could launch more than 1,000 rockets and missiles per day into Israel, potentially overwhelming its existing missile-defense systems. This problem is further complicated as Iran continues to facilitate Hezbollah’s production of precision-guided munitions, capable of pinpoint targeting key Israeli infrastructure.

Congress must also continue to support funding for critical U.S.-Israel counter-tunneling cooperation to combat the newly exposed threat that Hezbollah poses Israeli civilians. This cooperation has already played an important role in Israel’s ability to carry out Operation Northern Shield. These technologies must continue to improve as Hezbollah and other terrorist groups adapt.

Lastly, the United States should continue to urge UNIFIL to effectively carry out its mission in southern Lebanon. The United States and Israel have regularly protested UNIFIL’s failure to enforce the 2006 ceasefire and the disarmament of Hezbollah.

In August 2017, U.S. and Israeli efforts led to the passage of a new U.N. resolution—UNSC Resolution 2373—which included language reaffirming UNIFIL’s authority to “take all necessary action” to impede “hostile activities of any kind.” The resolution also asked the U.N. Secretary-General to look for ways the peacekeeping force can increase its visible presence within the existing mandate, including through patrols and inspections. Unfortunately, UNIFIL has not heeded its mandate, and little has changed.

Unless UNIFIL adopts a more active role and receives an enhanced mandate and additional support, it will remain a bystander as the security situation on Israel’s northern border continues to deteriorate. 

Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report