Vivian Bercovici: Israel catches Hezbollah in the act, and the UN looks away
Operating within Israeli borders, the IDF has neutralized tunnels exposed thus far with explosives, but clearly intends further action
Earlier this week, on Sunday, IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, had a chat with Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, the head of the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
Since August 2006, UNIFIL has been mandated, pursuant to UNSC Resolution 1701, to ensure that all militia forces are kept behind the Litani River in south Lebanon, which flows four kilometres north of the border with Israel at its closest point. In other words, 1701 intends for a reasonable buffer to be maintained separating Hezbollah and IDF forces.
The Lebanese villages of Kafr Kila and Ramya are a literal stone’s throw from the Israeli border. A small, ordinary structure in Kafr Kila, said to be a “cement block factory” turned out to be anything but. There was significant and unusual activity for an agricultural village of 10,000.
With airborne devices, the IDF noticed an awful lot of heavy truck traffic going to and from the little factory. They all arrived empty and left loaded with dirt. Israel knew what it was looking at — the site of a major tunnelling operation.
All this busy work seems to have gone unnoticed by the approximately 10,500 UNIFIL soldiers working in the area. To suggest that this strains credulity is putting it mildly. What it also clearly does is raise the issue of the neutrality of the UN force.
Hezbollah, backed by the IRGC and Iran, effectively controls south Lebanon and is the de facto government. As terrorist militias often do, Hezbollah commandeers civilian homes and buildings to serve also as a base for storing weapons and, clearly, enhancing military infrastructure and capability
This particular tunnel had reached 600 meters from Kafr Kila, burrowing very close to the northernmost Israeli town of Metulla. A beautiful village where 2,000 Israelis reside, Metulla is perched at the tip of a narrow jut of land, “the finger,” it is sometimes called, and surrounded on three sides by Lebanon. (It is also home to the only indoor regulation-size hockey arena in Israel, named Canada Centre.)
In recent years, Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah has taken to boasting publicly (even before the IDF discovered the first tunnel) that his fighters would conquer northern Israel. And the IDF paid attention.
Israel’s northern reaches have experienced horrific incidents too often. Among the more surreal were two brutal terrorist operations that infiltrated Israel through the Lebanese border and targeted civilians: in 1974, terrorists from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine took hostage more than 115 schoolchildren and murdered 25; and in 1980, when Kibbutz Misgav Am was attacked by commandos from a radical splinter group under the Palestine Liberation Organization umbrella, who took hostage infants and babies with their caregivers, murdering two. An IDF soldier died in their ultimate rescue.
In early 2014, shortly after I arrived in Israel to serve as Canada’s ambassador, rumours were swirling about tunnels having been dug in Gaza. One particularly surreal version, described in a write-up circulating at the time on Facebook, warned of multiple tunnels being dug from the Gaza Strip right under Israeli homes. The nightmare scenario told of terrorists popping straight into Israeli homes in the midst of family gatherings for the Jewish New Year in early fall.
At the time, it was dismissed; the crazy stuff of an overheated sci-fi imagination. Until, several months later, it was proven to be true, during the war between Hamas and Israel in the summer of 2014. The tunnels were terrifyingly real.
Shortly after, residents of northern Israel spoke of hearing digging sounds, just as their compatriots living on the border with the Gaza Strip had done in previous years. Their fears were dismissed publicly, but we now know that they were true.
The 2018 version of Misgav Am and Ma’alot is far more sophisticated, engineered and financed by Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. Apparently, the plan was to have hundreds of fighters emerge from numerous tunnels (to date three have been exposed but the IDF states that there are more), ambush and encircle Metulla and distract IDF attention and response from the regular Hizballah forces that would then, according to Nasrallah, surge the border and conquer northern Israel.
Operating within Israeli borders, the IDF has neutralized tunnels exposed thus far with explosives, but clearly intends further action. Residents in the villages hosting Hezbollah operatives have received repeated warnings from the IDF since Sunday urging them evacuate their homes, clearly signalling an imminent intention to destroy the structures used as bases for tunnel construction.
In his meeting with Maj. Gen. Del Col, IDF Chief Eisenkot made it very clear that Israel considers the tunnels to be a blatant violation of UN Resolution 1701. Based on official statements, UNIFIL’s response seems to have been a flurry of meetings with Lebanese and other officials. What UNIFIL has yet to do is explain, at all, how such significant Hezbollah military activity could continue, presumably for years, unnoticed, right under more than 10,500 noses.
Incredibly, UNIFIL seems to be questioning the obvious — whether Hezbollah is responsible for the tunnels. Following a meeting yesterday with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri, Maj. Gen. Del Col issued a statement regarding the seriousness of the tunnel situation, but tempering it with a peculiar warning: “At the same time rumours and speculations should be avoided.” Presumably, this somewhat cryptic admonishment invokes the Israeli claim that Hezbollah operatives dug the tunnels.
For the UN, it would appear, Hezbollah’s culpability is anything but certain. It’s an absurdist denial and, regrettably, exactly why Hezbollah has become so entrenched in south Lebanon in spite of Resolution 1701.
This is no whodunnit. It will be interesting to see what alternate theory of reality UNIFIL suggests as to who, other than Hezbollah, might have the resources, motivation and tenacity to burrow through hard rock from Lebanon into Israel.
— Vivian Bercovici is a former Canadian ambassador to Israel. She lives in Tel Aviv.