Hezbollah is building tunnels “with direct support and funding from Iran” in an effort to capture northern Israel’s Galilee region, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday.
“Capturing parts of the Galilee by Hezbollah is a concrete threat,” Netanyahu said in a televised news conference from the country’s defense headquarters in Tel Aviv after Israel announced an operation to shut down the tunnels. “The operation will continue until the outcome is achieved, however long that may take.”
Netanyahu said the tunnels were being built by Hezbollah “with one purpose in mind — to attack and murder innocent Israeli men, women and children.” He added that “Lebanon bears a heavy responsibility for allowing such acts terror on its territory.”
“The aim of Hezbollah has been to dig tunnels into our territory,” the prime miniser said. “It is part of an effort with a breadth and depth that we have not seen before.”
Residents of the pastoral Israeli border town of Metula told Israeli media that they had been hearing digging noises for years and had reported their suspiciouns to the military. Wire services reported on Tuesday that Israeli bulldozers and military vehicles were seen operating in the Metula area.
Netanyahu showed reporters a video of the first tunnel that was destroyed on Tuesday, which originated in a private home in Lebanon and stretched 40 yards into Israel. The video shows Hezbollah operatives in the tunnel, walking underground across the border, known as the Blue Line, to inspect a small camera snaked into the tunnel from the Israeli side. The men run back through the tunnel as explosives in the camera go off.
The 6-by-6-foot 650-foot long tunnel included a ventilation system, electrical wiring and communication lines. It was dug from under a house in the village of Kafr Kila and crossed into Metulla.
“This is just one more example of how Hezbollah is committing a double war crime,” Netanyahu said. “They target civilians while hiding behind civilians.”
He said that “this must be condemned loudly and clearly by all nations that care about peace, freedom and human dignity.”
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said at the news conference that the operation, dubbed Northern Shield, will last several weeks. He said that Israeli civilians should go about their daily routines and even visit the north, signalling that the Jewish state was not expecting an immediate response from Hezbollah.
Eisenkot said the operation was approved early last month and launched Monday night before the tunnels were operational and “became an immediate and direct threat to northern communities and army bases.”
“I have a message for the people of Lebanon: Hezbollah is putting your lives in danger. They are sacrificing your well-being to serve the aggressive purposes of Iran,” Netanyahu said. “Israel holds the Lebanese government accountable for all terror activity emanating from Lebanon against Israel.”
An Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, called Hezbollah’s activities “a flagrant and blatant violation of Israeli sovereignty” and of United National resolutions.
Hezbollah has been developing an offensive plan against Israel that would “shift the battleground into Israel,” Conricus said, adding that Israel has been evaluating the prospect of underground Hezbollah tunnels since 2013 and searching for them for more than two years. He did not explain why the operation was launched this week.
“Capturing parts of the Galilee by Hezbollah is a concrete threat,” Netanyahu said. “It is also part of a regional and global terror effort led by Iran.”
“It is an unacceptable act of wanton aggression,” he said.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton in a statement released late Monday night said that the United States “strongly supports Israel’s efforts to defend its sovereignty, and we call on Hezbollah to stop its tunneling into Israel and to refrain from escalation and violence.”
“More broadly,” he said, “we call on Iran and all of its agents to stop their regional aggression and provocation, which pose an unacceptable threat to Israeli and regional security.”
Netanyahu said that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed during their meeting in Brussels on Monday to levy sanctions against Hezbollah.