December 10, 2018

Northern Shield Explainer: Israel’s Operation on the Lebanese Border

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaks via a screen during a protest in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

On Tuesday morning, Israel woke up to a new reality. The IDF announced that it started an operation on the northern border. The following 5 comments will tell you briefly everything you need to understand about it.

  1. What

Explaining the operation and its goals is simple. Israel identified underground tunnels dug by Hezbollah that penetrate into Israeli territory. Such tunnels could allow Hezbollah to move men and ammunition to launch an attack within Israel. The IDF aims to destroy these tunnels. For years, it gathered intelligence about them, for months, it prepared an operation to damage them. The time has come. Note that (“for now”, IDF spokesman words) the operation is taking place within Israel’s territory.

  1. When

Yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu informed Secretary of State Pompeo about the coming operation when they met in Brussels. But the timing is more about meeting certain essential technical objectives before an operation could be launched. Remember that the IDF proved in Gaza, not long ago, that its ability to identify, locate and destroy tunnels is much improved. The developing technology and knowhow enabled the northern operation.

  1. Why

There’s no great mystery with the why. Israel cannot allow attack tunnels to penetrate its territory.

  1. World

There is regional context to the operation. There are changes in Syria, including a Russian attempt to stabilize the state by limiting the action of both Iran and Israel. For Iran, this means less focus on Syria and more on Lebanon. In recent weeks there was a growing wave of Israeli warnings to Lebanon – reminding the government in Beirut of its responsibility to prevent hostile action against Israel from Lebanese territory. Even before these warnings, Prime Minister Netanyahu exposed new sites for building rockets in Lebanon in his speech to the UN Assembly.

Exposing the tunnels will make Israel’s claims (that the Lebanese government does not control its own territory) even more credible. In other words: Israel is losing patience and is signaling to the world (the US, France, Arab countries) that the quiet in Lebanon is misleading.

  1. War

Is this a prelude to war?

The operation is on the Israeli side. This means that Israel does not aim to initiate a war.

Will Hezbollah initiate a war? Will Iran?

For Hezbollah it makes little sense, as war could present Israel with an opportunity to deal with some of the other concerns it has about Lebanon – namely, to deal with Hezbollah projects and assets. For Iran, the calculation is more complicated. The Iranian regime is under pressure and might look for ways to stir the waters, and possibly turn itself from being seen as a problem (Iran destabilizes the region) to being seen as a possible solution (talking to Iran is the only way to stop a war).

Then again, Iran is under pressure and might not want to give its rivals a pretext to strike.