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Operation Northern Shield

(December 2018-January 13, 2019)

On December 3, 2018, the IDF launched Operation Northern Shield to destroy tunnels constructed by Hezbollah that extended across the Lebanese border into Israel. The IDF announced the discovery of the tunnels on December 4. The military said it has been aware since 2006 that Hezbollah was trying to construct attack tunnels stretching from Lebanon into Israel at several points along the border.

According to Haaretz, “In 2013, the military discovered that Hezbollah was attempting to begin construction of the tunnels but could not locate any. In 2014, the military formed a special team to locate these tunnels, and in 2015 it began building a barrier along the Lebanese border. During this time, the military developed tunnel-locating technology.”

Hezbollah’s objective, according to Shimon Shapira is to fight the next war within Israeli territory. Hezbollah’s military commander, Imad Mughniyeh, wanted to invade the northern Galilee region and conquer it. Shapira said the aim was to “have topographical superiority in comparison to Israel’s inferior topographical positions near the border.”

Shapira explained that Hezbollah planned to move hundreds of fighters through the tunnels. The group created special forces, the “Radwan Forces,” to train for an eventual operation to seize control of isolated Israeli communities along the northern border.

IDF Spokesperson Ronen Manelis said details about the number of tunnels was classified. He said it was a “small number.” He added that the tunnels did not constitute an immediate threat and they were still unfinished.

One 600 foot tunnel extends from under a home near a UNIFIL post in southern Lebanon into Israel near the city of Metulla where Radwan units intended to infiltrate and cutoff the city. The military said it took about two years to build the tunnel, which was found roughly 80 feet underground and was 6 feet wide and 6 feet tall. It extended 130 feet into Israeli territory. 

On January 12, 2019, the IDF discovered a sixth tunnel, the largest of them all. The tunnel is reaches dozens of feet into Israeli territory and contains “railroads to transport equipment, garbage, lighting, and ladders to enter Israeli territory.” After destroying it, the army said, “the threat posed by the tunnels has been eliminated,” and the operation was completed the following day.

Orna Mizrahi noted the significance of the operation:

Beyond the display of IDF military-operational and technological power, particularly noteworthy is the intelligence achievement: once again, the IDF proved its intelligence superiority by discovering the tunnels and covertly tracking their progress over a period of years. Hezbollah, which had planned to surprise Israel, was instead surprised by Israel’s action.

UNIFIL, which is tasked with preventing Hezbollah from moving fighters or weapons near the border, confirmed the existence of at least two tunnels. The one near Metulla and a second located just to the north. A third tunnel was found near the town of Yiftah and a fourth and fifth in unspecified locations. The Lebanese government has denied UNIFIL access to the tunnels and prevented the peacekeepers from confirming their entry points.

The construction of the tunnels is a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War in 2006. “The fact that Hezbollah has tunnels crossing the border into Israeli territory is proof of a flagrant violation of Israeli sovereignty,” Manelis said. “We see this as a very serious situation that hurts Lebanon and the citizens of Lebanon, and we hold the Lebanese government accountable. We have indisputable proof that the Lebanese government is not in control of their border. Iranian money is behind these tunnels.”

Beyond the pure military significance of discovering and destroying the tunnels, the operation also dealt a devastating psychological blow to Hezbollah. As Yossi Melman noted:

Operation Northern Shield shows how deeply Israeli military intelligence has managed to penetrate Hezbollah and glean accurate information from one of its best guarded secrets. Hezbollah will now have to once again start a soul-searching and self-damaging process of asking itself what went wrong, how the enemy obtained information about the tunnels and whether there are traitors and spies among its own ranks.

Israel notified the United Nations about “underground infrastructure” dug by Hezbollah in Lebanon, including tunnels that have not yet crossed the border into Israeli territory with the expectation UNIFIL would investigate and take steps to ensure the tunnels are not completed.

The IDF announced on May 30, 2019, it had completed the destruction of “the longest and most significant” attack tunnel. It took several years to dig before being discovered in January.  and was equipped with advanced infrastructure for electricity, ventilation, communications systems and a railway to transport equipment and garbage. The tunnel was 260 feet deep with 20 flights of stairs, 3,280 feet long and penetrated 250 feet into Israeli territory near the villages of Shtula and Zar’it. The entrance was found in the Lebanese village of Ramiyeh. The IDF filled it with liquid concrete.

Prior to neutralizing the tunnel, a delegation from the U.S. Army was given a tour of the tunnel. The Americans were interested in the Israeli technology used to discover the tunnels and its possible use for detecting underground passages along the U.S. border with Mexico.

The IDF is aware of additional tunnels built close to, but not crossing the border.

Sources: Yaniv Kubovich, Noa Shpigel and Noa Landau, “Israel Launches Operation to Destroy Hezbollah Cross-border Tunnels From Lebanon,” Haaretz, (December 4, 2018);
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira, “Hizbullah’s Operational Plan to Invade the Galilee through Underground Tunnels,” JCPA, (December 4, 2018);
Anna Ahronheim, “Hezbollah Tunnel Was To Be Used To Cut Off Metulla: Senior Idf Officer,” Jerusalem Post, (December 5, 2018);
“UN working with both sides, after hidden tunnels confirmed along Lebanon-Israel ‘Blue Line,’” UN News, (December 11, 2018);
Judah Ari Gross, “IDF uncovers third attack tunnel dug from Lebanon into Israel,” Times of Israel, December 11, 2018);
Yaniv Kubovich, “Israeli Army Says Fourth Hezbollah Attack Tunnel Found Crossing From Lebanon,” Haaretz, (December 16, 2018);
Yoav Zitun, “IDF exposes, destroys fifth Hezbollah tunnel,” Ynet, (December 26, 2018);
Yaniv Kubovich, “Israeli Army Finds Last and Largest Hezbollah Attack Tunnel, Ending Six-week Op,” Haaretz, (January 13, 2019);
Orna Mizrahi, “Operation Northern Shield: Interim Assessment,” INSS Insight No. 1127, (January 8, 2019);
Yossi Melman, “Hezbollah’s sophisticated plan,” Jerusalem Report, (December 24, 2018);
Tovah Lazaroff, “UNFIL Denied Access To Hezbollah Attack Tunnel Against Israel In Lebanon,” Jerusalem Post, (January 23, 2019);
“Israel tells UN more Hezbollah tunnels in Lebanon: report,” i24NEWS, (January 28, 2019);
Nazir Majali, “US Experts Study 'Hezbollah’s' Underground Tunnels,” Asharq Al-Awsat, (May 31, 2019);
Anna Ahronheim, “IDF Destroying Hezbollah's Last, Largest Cross-Border Attack Tunnel,” Jerusalem Post, (May 30, 2019);
“IDF Destroys Hezbollah’s ‘Flagship’ Attack Tunnel,” IsraelDefense, (May 30, 2019).


Photo: IDF.