Israel on Tuesday announced that it has begun an extensive operation to neutralize Hezbollah-built tunnels, which are said to enter Israel and place targets in the north of the country at risk. The action has already been labeled operation “Northern Shield” by Israeli security forces. Areas near the border have been declared closed military zones.

An Israeli Defense Forces spokesman said the operation is currently taking place within Israeli territory. 

The narrative coming from the military is that this operation has been in the works for some time, as Israeli intelligence has been following plans for an offensive against Hezbollah tunnels since at least 2013. A military spokesman said the tunnels were a “severe violation of Israeli sovereignty,” adding that they are clearly “funded by Iranian money.” Israel now hopes to eradicate any such tunnels before they become fully functional.

Israel seems to have already obtained permission from the Trump administration to launch the operation. Netanyahu met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels yesterday. It was reported that he voiced his concern over actions in Lebanon carried out by Iran and Hezbollah.

While the meeting reportedly focused on Hezbollah’s missile capability, it is likely that the tunnel situation was discussed in depth. Before boarding his plane, Netanyahu said to Hezbollah, “Israel also knows what you’re doing, Israel knows where you’re doing it, and Israel will not let you get away with it.”

Israeli residents in the north have so far not been asked to take special precautions but rather to follow the news and public announcements closely. All public services remain open for now. Giora Zeltz, spokesmen for the Upper Galilee council, said, “We trust our army. It is important to emphasize that we maintain our blessed civilian routine.”

Operation distraction?

There is some suspicion in Israel that the operation is devised to create a distraction from other matters. On Sunday, the Israeli police recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and his wife) be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of public trust in yet another corruption investigation case.

This deepens the prime minister’s already substantial legal troubles. In February, the police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted in connection to two further corruption cases. Anshel Pfeffer of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz tweeted that the “timing is transparent.”

However, there are also indications that Netanyahu has been aware of this issue for some time. Lahav Harkov reported in the Jerusalem Post two weeks ago that the prime minister is hesitant to call an election now (after previously considering it) due to a security crisis in the north. This may explain his insistence on keeping the current ramshackle coalition together. As always, in the Middle East it is difficult to disentangle political goals from security needs.

Calm on the southern front

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has yet to put out a statement on the latest developments on the border.

Just four days ago, Hezbollah warned Israel against launching a new offensive, threatening to attack key sites, including the Defense Ministry and the nuclear reactor in Dimona.

“Attack and you will regret it,” it said.

The video was released in the wake of an alleged Israeli strike against Hezbollah sites in Syria.

Amal Saad, a political science professor at Lebanese University who has a forthcoming book on Hezbollah’s evolution to a regional force, believes it is unlikely the Israelis are seeking to start a regional war.

“We can’t talk about any war with Hezbollah anymore as being just a Lebanon war. It is necessarily a war in Syria as well and who knows where else,” Saad told Asia Times. 

She pointed to the latest hostilities between Israel and Hamas, which ended with a ceasefire and the resignation of the Israeli defense chief in protest: 

“If the Israelis weren’t able to complete what they started in Gaza, how are they going to have the stomach for a full-on, not only Lebanon war, but a full-on regional war with Hezbollah?” 

She noted that, historically, Israel has rarely given a warning before launching offensives.

The threats and bravado played up in the media, she says, are likely “a substitute, not an indicator” of a new invasion. 

On Tuesday, hours after the Israeli announcement, Hezbollah’s media arm distributed translated comments made by Israel’s former military intelligence chief, Amos Yadlin, who assessed that the operation would be limited to the tunnels.

The only risk, the media wing quoted Yadlin as saying, was that Hezbollah could misread the scope of the operation and overreact.

In Lebanon, local media has moved onto other stories, reporting that all is calm along the southern border. 

Beirut correspondent Alison Tahmizian Meuse contributed to this report