The tunnel tour for journalists came as members of the U.N. Security Council met in an emergency session requested by Israel and the United States. In a speech in Jerusalem before the council convened, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the international community to hold Lebanon, Iran and Hezbollah accountable for the violation of Israeli sovereignty.
“Lebanon is doing nothing at best, colluding at worst,” Netanyahu said in a rare briefing for international reporters in Jerusalem. “My message is — Hezbollah is putting you in great jeopardy.”
Israel, which battled Hezbollah in a punishing war in 2006, has repeatedly warned that any future fight with the militant group will also encompass Lebanese government targets. Israel sees a strengthening arc of Iranian influence — from Lebanon, through its proxy Hezbollah, across Syria to Tehran — as a threat to its security, and it has pointed to the tunnels as evidence of its enemies’ nefarious aims.
President Trump’s decision, reported Wednesday, to draw down U.S. forces in Syria comes as a blow to Israel, which had previously urged the Trump administration to maintain a presence there. Israel wants U.S. forces to be a buffer against Iran, which has sent fighters to back the Syrian regime in the country’s civil war.
Israel has been fortifying the dividing line with Lebanon in recent years and building a hefty concrete wall, but the military says Hezbollah has been secretly digging for four years. Just on the other side of the border, the Lebanese town of Kfar Kela overlooks a white tent that the Israeli military has erected over a shaft it has opened into the first tunnel it found after launching its operation on Dec. 4.
The four tunnels it has exposed so far had no openings on the Israeli side and were detected through seismic sensors and ground-penetrating radar, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli military. The military has not disclosed the location of two of the tunnels.
A video shot by a military robot and released last month showed two suspected Hezbollah operatives inside one tunnel. The robot set off a warning explosion, according to an Israeli military official at the site, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in keeping with protocol. Other tunnels have been rigged with explosives, he said.
The United Nations peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL, has confirmed that two tunnels cross the demarcation line, known as the “blue line,” in a breach of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which was adopted after the 2006 war. Lebanon has also accused Israel of repeatedly violating the resolution with incursions into its airspace, notably when Israeli jets cross into Syria to bomb targets linked to Iranian proxies.
The army began suspecting in 2015 that Hezbollah was digging at Kfar Kela, Conricus said, when production at a concrete block factory on the edge of town slowed but activity there did not. The addition of a sentry tower and military-grade generator provided further clues, he said.
Netanyahu’s political opponents charged that the timing of Operation Northern Shield was political, launched to rebut accusations that he has been weak on Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, by agreeing to a cease-fire. Netanyahu has also been beset by corruption allegations, and police have recommended his indictment in two criminal cases.
The military contends that it had been aware of Hezbollah’s digging but that it developed the technology to precisely locate the tunnels only recently.
“Their goal has been to penetrate our territory, to kidnap our people, including civilians, murder civilians and conquer the northern piece of the Galilee,” Netanyahu said in the briefing. “This is not merely an act of aggression; it’s an act of war.”
At the U.N. meeting Wednesday, Israel called on all Security Council members to condemn Hezbollah and designate it a terrorist organization in its entirety. It also pressed for increased sanctions on the militant group and demanded that Lebanon stop allowing its territory to be used to carry out attacks against Israel.
Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, showed aerial imagery of the area of Kfar Kela, including the concrete block factory and a nearby UNIFIL observation post. He said that after Israel gave precise information to the peacekeepers on the location of the tunnel, the UNIFIL force was prevented from accessing the area. Danon accused the Lebanese army of tipping off Hezbollah.
“If Hezbollah dares to attack Israel, it will bring ruin to Lebanon,” he said.