The Israeli military launched an operation last month to expose and neutralize Hezbollah’s commando tunnels penetrating Israeli territory from Lebanon. According to Israeli officials, the operation is the result of years of precise intelligence collection and the development of cutting-edge technology to pinpoint the tunnels, which were chiseled out of rock deep beneath the ground. The Israeli operation is now reportedly nearing an end, as Israeli military engineers work to fill the tunnels with cement or destroy them.
So far, all is calm on the Lebanon border as Israel wraps up its work. But things may not remain calm for long. Tensions are on the rise after President Donald Trump announced by tweet his decision to withdraw American forces from Syria, thereby conveying that Israel will soon be on its own. Israeli defense officials view the president’s decision as a grave mistake. A withdrawal will embolden Iran and its hegemonic designs on the Middle East. Then again, Israel has always operated independently, as seen in the recent Israeli allegedly strikes against Iranian assets in Syria. But without an American presence there, Iran may wrongly seek to exploit the perception of Israeli isolation.
In the meantime, the Israel Defense Force is already on high alert. The IDF sees the Lebanon tunnels as a direct challenge to Israel’s sovereignty and an egregious violation of UNSC Resolutions 1701 and 1559 that were designed to contain Hezbollah’s aggression.
Hezbollah has been remarkably restrained as the IDF methodically destroys years of the terrorist group’s work. Admittedly, the optics of the Israeli operations are decidedly less provocative because they are being conducted on the Israeli side of the border. Moreover, it would seem absurd if the Lebanese terrorist group retaliated against a sovereign army that caught them red-handed violating international law.
But avoiding a future conflict may not be so simple. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet have clearly-delineated policies, or red lines, regarding Hezbollah: 1) zero tolerance for Iranian or Hezbollah military forces on Syrian soil, 2) zero tolerance for Hezbollah’s terrorist threat on the northern Israeli border, and 3) zero tolerance for advanced, game-changing, weapon systems (like precision-guided munitions, or PGMs) in the hands of the Lebanese terror group.
While Israel has carried out numerous strikes in Syria in recent months to enforce its third red line and sometimes to strike at Iran-backed forces, the Hezbollah tunnels are a clear violation of Netanyahu’s second red line. Recent news suggests that a possible clash may be looming in Lebanon over the third red line. Indeed, a steady stream of news reports suggest that advanced weapons, technology, and production parts are flowing from Iran to its top proxy in the Levant, using civilian aircraft flying to Beirut or Damascus
Last month, when Netanyahu took an unplanned flight to Brussels to meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to convey his intention to launch Operation Northern Shield, he reportedly asked Pompeo to pass on an unambiguous message to Lebanon, and perhaps Hezbollah and Iran. He reportedly told America’s top diplomat that Israel was prepared to strike at precision-guided munitions and production sites it had identified in Lebanon.
Trump’s decision to leave Syria may seem like he is leaving Israel in the lurch, but this is not necessarily the case. There is a growing sense among Israel’s military brass that U.S. backing for Israeli military actions, particularly against Iran, will be greater. Indeed, Trump has effectively asked Israel to shoulder the security burden in the region – a theme that the president has returned to repeatedly as he signals America’s military withdrawal from multiple theaters.
With or without American backing, an Israeli strike on Hezbollah’s PGM infrastructure in Lebanon would almost certainly prompt a Hezbollah response. This could quickly give way to a third Lebanon war, or maybe to the “first northern war,” should Iranian-backed militias in Syria choose to join the fray. This explains Netanyahu’s urgent visit to Belgium and the urgency now viewed on the part of the U.S., E3, and UN to deal with the Hezbollah’s PGM before Israel takes action.
But it is unclear whether diplomacy would have much impact on Iranian terror master Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Indeed, Hezbollah is a core component of Suleimani’s plan to surround Israel with hostile forces. This includes a major outlay of billions of dollars (thanks, in part, to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal’s sanctions relief) to arm the group with tens of thousands of rockets, sophisticated weapons, and commando tunnels to prepare for a ground invasion, to include hostage-taking and direct clashes with the Israeli army, to supplement a rocket assault.
While the tunnels were an important component of the Iranian strategy, it is the PGMs that are crucial to Suleimani’s plans. He will almost certainly push for Hezbollah to continue its production, even as the group faces intense international pressure.
Thus, even if Operation Northern Shield successfully neutralizes every Hezbollah tunnel, if the PGM program in Lebanon does not come to a screeching halt, the potential for a wider conflagration is quite real.
In reality, Israel is already justified to engage in hostilities. Hezbollah is currently in violation of two UN Security Council resolutions. Hezbollah committed a double war crime by operating from within Lebanon’s civilian population with the intent to harm Israel’s civilian population. The group is also holding Lebanon hostage by conducting its activities in a way that directly undermines the sovereignty of the state.
Nevertheless, Israel has given the United States and the international community an opportunity to prevent a conflict. Diplomacy has shifted into high gear. But even as it does, Israel is making clear its legal rights to strike at legitimate targets. The latest reported Israeli strikes on Iranian assets in Syria was a case in point.
Israel has never asked the U.S. military to defend Israeli citizens, and likely never will. This is a core aspect of Israeli security doctrine. And now, with Trump’s withdrawal from Syria, Israel urgently seeks to convey this. Iran may seek to test Israeli resolve. But it would likely do so at its peril.
Brigadier General (Res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is the former Israeli acting National Security Advisor. He is now a Visiting Professor at the Aerospace faculty, Technion Haifa and a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president at FDD and a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury.