Operation Northern Shield Deprives Hezbollah of Major Strategic Asset

On November 14, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left many scratching their heads in bewilderment when he unexpectedly agreed to a ceasefire with the Gazan-based terror group, Hamas. In a two-day spate of cross-border violence, sparked by an intelligence operation in Gaza, the terrorist group fired an unprecedented 460 rockets and mortars into Israel, the highest ever for the terror group in such a brief period.

Of course, the fact that no Israelis were killed during the bombardment (a Palestinian living in Israel was killed) made Netanyahu's announcement more palatable to the Israeli public but there was another more pressing matter that was dogging the prime minister. At an event hosted in honor of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, He made a cryptic reference to other "considerations that must be hidden from the enemy," which "the public can't always be privy to."

Two weeks later, on November 29, Israel struck multiple enemy positions near Damascus and southern Syria. The target bank included pro-Iran militias as well as weapons bound for Hezbollah. It was the first reported Israeli strike in Syria since the September 18 downing of a Russian IL-20 "Coot" surveillance aircraft by inept Syrian anti-aircraft crews.

At the time, some speculated that Netanyahu was referring to this operation since it carried with it the potential of conflict with the Russians. Within days however, it became clear that Netanyahu was referencing a more sinister development on the Israel-Lebanon border. On December 4, Netanyahu announced that Israel had undertaken Operation Northern Shield, an undertaking aimed at uncovering and destroying Hezbollah tunnels penetrating Israel from Lebanon.

The task of detecting and uncovering subterranean Hezbollah infrastructure is painstaking and difficult but the operation, which is ongoing, is yielding significant positive results. Using sophisticated equipment which detects seismic and subterranean anomalies, the Israelis have thus far uncovered at least three terror tunnels. An Israel Defense Forces spokesman indicated that there were more tunnels but the IDF has remained mute about this due to security considerations.

The first and most extensive tunnel was uncovered near the northeastern Israeli border town of Metula. This tunnel was more than 80ft beneath the surface, was 6ft wide and 6ft tall and penetrated 130ft into Israeli territory. It was large enough to accommodate swarms of Hezbollah operatives equipped with ATVs and motorcycles. The tunnel originated from the Lebanese village of Kafr Kela beneath civilian infrastructure and was constructed right under the noses of UN forces operating in the area. It is also likely that the Lebanese Army (also known as the Lebanese Armed Forces) was aware of its existence. The LAF, having lost all vestiges of independence, is subordinate to Hezbollah and acts as its auxiliary arm.

Israel believes that Hezbollah intended to use the Metula tunnel to cut the town off from the rest of the country and engage in a mass murder-kidnapping spree. The second tunnel was found in northwestern Galilee near the small town of Zar'it. The IDF announced the existence of a third tunnel but has not disclosed its location.

During the operation, Israeli combat engineers lowered a camera-equipped robot into the Metula tunnel and shortly thereafter, it filmed two Hezbollah terrorists operating within its confines. One of the operatives caught sight of the robot and moved in for closer look, whereupon the robot detonated a charge sending both terrorists scurrying like frightened rabbits. One of them was identified as Imad "Azaladin" Fahs. According to I24, Azaladin has a PhD in mechanical engineering from Tehran's University of Technology and also has ties to Mexican drug cartels, having trained with them near the border with the United States. Hezbollah's ties to narco-terror are well known. The group has deep roots in Venezuela and Mexico and the US Justice Department recently designated Hezbollah a transnational criminal organization.

During Israel's 2014 counter-insurgency campaign against Hamas, known as Operation Protective Edge, the IDF uncovered a network of some three dozen, Hamas-constructed tunnels leading into Israel. This shocking development prompted the IDF to re-think its strategy vis-á-vis Hezbollah to the north. Despite religious differences, one being Sunni and the other Shia, Hamas and Hezbollah maintain similar radical Islamist ideologies and are allies who share information. It would therefore be logical to assume that Hezbollah, whose capabilities are far greater than its southern cousins, were digging tunnels as well.

The challenges for Hezbollah are far greater, however. The subterranean soil around Gaza is soft making construction of tunnels easier. In Lebanon, Hezbollah must dig through solid rock. It is a virtual certainty that Hezbollah embarked on its tunnel-digging initiative with the assistance of Iran and North Korea, the latter being expert in the practice of tunnel-digging.

Both Hamas and Hezbollah attempted to use tunnels to execute mega attacks. In 2014 however, Hamas prematurely played its hand and unwisely attacked Israel before most of the tunnels were ready for use. Accordingly, Israel deprived Hamas of a major strategic asset. Hezbollah too suffered from Israel's southern coup. Israel began to invest heavily in anti-tunneling technologies and its combat engineers became proficient in tunnel detection, causing many to collapse and transforming Hamas tunnels into giant burial chambers for its Islamist operatives. This expertise was transferred northward culminating in the current Northern Shield initiative.

Hezbollah intended to use its tunnels in conjunction with a massive rocket barrage as part of an opening salvo against Israel. Had it succeeded, Hezbollah could have surprised Israel with swarms of heavily armed operatives roaming northern Galilee, perhaps even capturing a small community or two and sowing fear and chaos throughout. Just as frightening is the prospect of Hezbollah capturing dozens of Israelis — civilians and soldiers — in a surprise attack from areas deemed secure and shuffling them at gunpoint back into the tunnels and straight into Lebanon for future use as bargaining chips.

But Northern Shield has robbed Hezbollah of the initiative and deprived it of a major strategic asset. All Hezbollah can do now is sit, wait and watch as Israel systematically dismantles and destroys what took Hezbollah years to construct. Israel 1, Hezbollah zero.

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About the Author

Ari Lieberman
Ari Lieberman is an attorney and former prosecutor who has authored numerous articles and publications on matters concerning the Middle East and is considered an authority on geo-political and military developments affecting the region.