The Israeli Defense Force’s Operation Northern Shield continues into its second week with no signs of letting up. On 4 December, IDF top brass accompanied by government officials announced the Israeli military was launching a series of missions to destroy cross-border attack tunnels that it says were dug by the militant Shiite group Hezbollah.
Chief IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said “a number of tunnels” had penetrated Israeli territory and forces were working on the Israeli side of the frontier to destroy them. “We see Hezbollah’s actions as a flagrant and blatant violation of Israeli sovereignty,” Conricus said.
Hezbollah is no novice when it comes to tunnel digging. Networks of underground bunkers were discovered by Israeli forces during the Second Lebanon War of 2006. But these tunnels are different. While earlier structures were designed for defensive purposes —underground cover, transportation, weapons storage, etc.— he recently uncovered ones were all clearly created for executing attacks into Israel.
Long in Coming
Israel has for many years maintained that Hezbollah has plans to conduct cross-border raids in any future conflict, with the specific goal of attacking and conquering a civilian town near the border. According to IDF sources, Hezbollah has been training its special forces unit —known as the Radwan Unit— for cross-border raids into Israeli territory. The purpose of these raids would be to cause as much mayhem and destruction as possible, both for the sake of the destruction itself and for the “symbolism” of having troops carry out attacks inside Israel.
But the matter in which these attacks would be conducted was anyone’s guess. Israel’s northern border is sealed rather efficiently, with four infantry battalions along with other regional support units manning security positions all along the border at any given time. Much of Lebanon and Israel is actually separated by concrete barriers. In recent years, however, northern residents have raised fears of attack tunnels being dug under the border. The IDF was spurred to launch a task force to investigate these concerns in 2014. According to the Israeli military, one of the facts uncovered in investigations was that the Hamas regime in Gaza was providing Hezbollah with technical assistance, based on its extensive experience digging attack tunnels from the Strip into southern Israel.
A major development in the IDF’s search for Hezbollah’s underground infrastructure was the invention of breakthrough tunnel detection technology by Israeli defense industries. Several months ago, Israeli media reported that the famed defense contractor Elbit had developed a platform that can detect with high accuracy early stages of any deep underground activity. It is fair to assume this same platform, the operational details of which are still highly secretive, is being deployed in Israel’s north.
Operation Northern Shield has opened up a long list of factors Israel will have to address moving forward operationally.
First off is the fact that any operation on the northern front is a highly delicate business, politically speaking. While the IDF has not actually exited their own territory, the region they are facing has become an increasingly complex web of conflicts since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Countries ranging from Turkey to the United States have become invested in this area of the Middle East over the past six years. An action taken by any one of the players will almost certainly have an upsetting effect for the theater as a whole.
For this reason Israel has taken the initiative in reaching out to the major power most present in the region to its north.
Earlier this week, the IDF reported that a military delegation will head to Moscow to brief their Russian counterparts on the ongoing operations to destroy Hezbollah tunnels from Lebanon. According to reports, the trip was decided on after a telephone call between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. During the day-long visit, the delegation briefed Russian military officials on Operation Northern Shield and other “operational issues,” the IDF statement read. The fact is, Russia is technically fighting on the same side as Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The trip to Moscow is essentially a way for Israel to inform Putin and his government how Israel is targeting their “allies” in the Syrian conflict—and to ensure Russia doesn’t get involved.
The other important issue Israel faces is simply to prepare its personnel for the road ahead.
In many sections of the IDF there is a hard fact about the northern front everyone is aware of: Lebanese and Syrian territory is different. Cross the border north and soldiers find themselves in mountainous, hard, rocky terrain, categorically different from much of what they train in within Israel. For many field units, the distinction may not be so important. But when dealing with enemy underground structures, the type of ground you’re standing on makes all the difference. Even before Northern Shield began, the IDF’s Corp of Engineers reportedly sent several special forces operators to train in secret locations in Europe. The purpose of this training was to learn how to excavate hard soil similar to the type found in southern Lebanon. Many if not all of these operators have now been deployed for Northern Shield. No doubt that if the operation expands at any point, there will be a need for more experts in these specialized methods of excavation.
Internationally, Israel’s Northern Shield hasn’t really garnered that much attention—at least not yet. The responses that have popped up have been largely positive. Not surprisingly, the Trump administration came out in support of the IDF’s activities. National Security Adviser John Bolton expressed “strong support” for Israel’s operation against Hezbollah attack tunnels, saying Washington backed Jerusalem’s “efforts to defend its sovereignty.” Even the European Union, not always the staunchest of Israel’s supporters, has backed the Israeli operation. In a tweet, the EU ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret said that “Israel has the right to safeguard the security of its citizens and territory.”
The mild reaction on the international stage is likely because the operation hasn’t yet created too much noise. This, however, may change. IDF officials have said that Northern Shield is expected to take at least “several weeks.” With Hezbollah carefully tracking Israeli operations from across the fence, the prospect of Northern Shield erupting into a third Lebanon war remains a real and present possibility.