This picture taken yesterday near the northern Israeli town of Misgav Am shows Israeli machinery operating near the border wall with Lebanon. – AFP

JERUSALEM: Israel’s army said yesterday it has discovered Hezbollah tunnels infiltrating its territory from Lebanon and launched an operation to destroy them, a move likely to raise tensions with the Iran-backed group. The surprise announcement came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels over regional dangers, with both having repeatedly warned about the activities of Iran, Israel’s main enemy.

Netanyahu said he discussed the operation with Pompeo and called the tunnels a violation of a UN resolution aimed at ending a 2006 war between Israel and Shiite group Hezbollah. “Whoever tries to harm Israel’s security will pay dearly,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “We will continue with further activities, covert and overt, to ensure Israel’s security.” US President Donald Trump’s White House gave its full backing to the operation, with National Security Adviser John Bolton saying “we call on Iran and all of its agents to stop their regional aggression and provocation”.

Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the “attack tunnels” were not yet operational. He declined to say how many were detected, when they reached Israeli territory and how they would be destroyed. Later the military specified it had located one such tunnel dug from a home in the area of Kafr Kela in southern Lebanon that crossed into its territory and was working to “neutralize” it. The tunnel stretched some 200 m, at a depth of around 25 m, Conricus said. The area around the Israeli town of Metula has been declared a closed military zone, with the army distributing images of heavy machinery digging into the ground.

Israel labeled the operation “Northern Shield” and said all activities would take place within Israeli territory, though they still raised the risk of a response from Hezbollah. A UN peacekeeping force which monitors the border region said it had increased patrols but noted the area remained calm. Lebanon’s army also said it was monitoring the situation closely, while Hezbollah had not reacted.

According to Conricus, the tunnels were part of a Hezbollah plan from 2012 to “shift the battlefield to Israel” and “conquer the Galilee” in a future conflict by infiltrating its territory. In 2013 the army acted on reports Hezbollah was digging tunnels, but failed to locate any, he said. Following the 2014 war between Israel and Gaza, in which Islamist movement Hamas used cross-border attack tunnels, the army said it found “Hezbollah and Hamas share knowledge” and soon after began intensive work to prevent tunnels from Lebanon.

The military has used various means to collapse or fill in tunnels from the Gaza Strip. No tunnels from Lebanon include exit points within Israel, the army said. Conricus said that while the army has enhanced its presence in the north, it has not summoned reserve soldiers. He said the military “holds the Lebanese government responsible for all activities perpetrated in Lebanon towards Israel”.

Netanyahu has spoken of a sensitive security situation in recent days without providing details, particularly after defense minister Avigdor Lieberman quit over a controversial Gaza ceasefire last month. Lieberman’s resignation threatened to provoke early elections, but Netanyahu has held his coalition together and is clinging to a one-seat majority in parliament. The prime minister, who has since assumed the role of defense minister, said at the time that holding elections would be “irresponsible” due to the undefined security threats.

His comments were seen by some as an attempt to save his government, with polls showing wide disapproval among the Israeli public of his handling of the Gaza flare-up in November. Netanyahu is also facing further political pressure after Israeli police on Sunday recommended he and his wife Sara be indicted for bribery, the third such recommendation against the premier in recent months.

Conricus rejected suggestions of politics influencing the announcement. Netanyahu has pledged to stop Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria and to keep it from transferring advanced weapons to its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. There has been increased attention in Israel in recent days over Israeli officials’ concerns regarding Iranian activity in Lebanon. Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes in Syria against what it says are Iranian military targets and deliveries of advanced arms to Hezbollah.

However, a friendly fire incident in Syria in September that led to the downing of a Russian plane by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli strike has complicated Israeli operations there. Russia subsequently upgraded Syrian air defenses with the delivery of the advanced S-300 system, which Damascus had said last month would make Israel “think carefully” before carrying out further air raids. – AFP