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Operation Northern Shield: Beneath The Surface Of Israel’s Underground Mission

The goal is not only to destroy a tactical threat before it morphs into a strategic one, but also to serve notice to Iran, its Lebanese proxy and the world that Jerusalem means business

Shortly after launching Operation Northern Shield, Israel’s army uncovered a second and third cross-border tunnel constructed by Lebanon-based Hizbullah. Notably, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu hailed the few-days-old mission to neutralize the growing and very lethal menace of the subterranean attack platforms as a “great success.” A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces described the sophisticated structures as “not operational and [thus] not yet pos[ing] an imminent threat to the surrounding Israeli communities.”

The comment raised the eyebrows of some observers given that the military has long acknowledged Hizbullah’s efforts to build an underground network through which to dispatch elite fighters in a future war with a view to capturing Israeli towns and villages and capturing soldiers and civilians. To many, therefore, it seems a given that by now there should exist more acutely dangerous infrastructure than has thus far been exposed by the Israeli mission.

Indeed, the predictable and relatively modest results to date have lent ammunition to those disapproving of Netanyahu’s prioritization of the north in lieu of a forceful offensive against Hamas following seven months of chaos in the south. To this end, former defense minister Avigdor Liberman—who resigned in protest of the decision to “capitulate to terror”—on Saturday again minimized the importance of the counter-Hizbullah operation.

There is a confluence of factors that, on the surface, support this position, not least of which is that for the 37th consecutive Friday, the so-called “March of Return” demonstrations drew thousands of rioting Gazans to the border. This came hours after a joint American-Israeli initiative failed to condemn Hamas at the United Nations, which, in turn, followed the transfer with Israel’s permission of a second $15 million installment of Qatari cash into the Palestinian enclave.

The optics are, in the eyes of some, intolerable, with no amount of PR and grandiose statements relating to Operation Defensive Shield able to restore whatever deterrence they deem was lost vis-à-vis Hamas.

The issue is magnified by the inherent risk associated with the current undertaking, as evidenced by the warning shots fired on Saturday by Israeli troops at three individuals approaching the northern border. The army claims the suspects were Hizbullah members, but Lebanese media reported that the Israeli army had unwittingly targeted a Lebanese military patrol “because of heavy fog in the area.”

Moreover, while Israel has until now limited the operation to within its own borders, the need may arise to push into Lebanese territory which would raise the stakes significantly if not ignite a conflagration. In the interim, Jerusalem is calling on the UN observer force that monitors the frontier to destroy the points of entry into the tunnels that have been revealed.

Nevertheless, most defense analysts agree that, when considering the totality of circumstances, Israel is acting responsibly in the north by getting ahead of the curve, tackling today what undoubtedly tomorrow would evolve into a significant danger. Case in point is Hizbullah’s acquisition of approximately 150,000 projectiles since Israel pummeled the Iranian proxy into submission just over a decade ago, which makes clear the risks associated with permitting a tactical threat to metastasize into a major strategic one.

“It is a very important objective [in and of itself] to prevent the infiltration of dozens of terrorists in a future conflict,” Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead, formerly the director of policy and political-military affairs at Israel’s Ministry of Defense, explained to The Media Line.

“It is not about the amount of time the IDF has known about the issue but, rather, a matter of intelligence and capabilities. Israel now has achieved the technology to locate, paralyze or destroy the tunnels, so the operation is not a game. Netanyahu is the defense minister and he chose to act.”

Wearing his foreign minister cap, the prime minister also phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin to bring him up to speed on developments, using the opportunity to reinforce Jerusalem’s determination to “prevent the establishment of an Iranian presence in Syria.” Tensions with Moscow have been high since the downing in September by Assad regime forces of a Russian reconnaissance plane, an incident Moscow blamed on Israel which minutes earlier had conducted a nearby aerial raid to destroy an Iranian weapons depot.

Operation Northern Shield is therefore an occasion for Israel both to show Russia that it is serious about upholding declared red lines and, by extension, encourage the Kremlin to move past the crisis and strengthen military coordination with the Jewish state. In this respect, it is worthwhile noting that Arab media recently reported that Russian troops have been deployed along the Syrian-Lebanese frontier in order to inhibit Tehran from transferring to its underling advanced weaponry via Damascus.

According to most analysts, Iran should be viewed as the primary impetus for the current military mission, with Netanyahu having told Fox News that the Islamic Republic is using Hizbullah as “the forward arm to attack Israel with a goal of destroying it.” By launching what amounts to a defensive operation, Jerusalem effectively is providing advance warning of potential further action unless the international community challenges Iranian expansionism and Hizbullah’s militarization.

“It is imperative to neutralize the tunnels penetrating Israeli territory immediately so that they cannot at any time harm Israeli citizens, but this is also part of the overall interest to roll back all Iranian advances in the Middle East,” Maj. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ophir, previously head of the IDF Homefront Command, conveyed to The Media Line.

“Today, the northern front is the main danger—more so than the south—as Iran has troops and military facilities in Syria and [projects power] through Hizbullah in Lebanon. There is an understanding that if things continues along this path then the whole of Lebanon will be fair game in the next war and the country will suffer much more than in the previous round.”

Despite the military’s backing, Netanyahu appears cognizant of lingering skepticism over his decision to initiate Operation Northern Shield while the Gaza powder keg is still smoldering. At the opening of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, the prime minister stressed that his government is “poised to act in any situation that requires a military campaign in Gaza if needed, because we have the time to prepare for it which gives us an advantage.”

Netanyahu’s words surely will fall on some deaf ears, and for others it will be reassuring that Jerusalem is aware that what holds true for Hizbullah does for Hamas, too. This is exemplified, for example, by the fact that while Gaza’s much smaller size should make it easier for Israel to monitor happenings there, this has not stopped Hamas from developing long-range projectiles as well as greatly expanding and modernizing its own tunnel infrastructure which claimed a “victory” with the kidnapping of soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006.

More specifically, observers note that it should demonstrate the right-mindedness of Operation Northern Shield while serving as a reminder of the perils that inevitably accompany the adoption of any policy that allows terrorist threats to fester.