Israel Pulse

Hezbollah's tunnels distract Israel from real dangers

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Article Summary
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's focus on Hezbollah and its tunnels in the north is enabling Iran and Hamas to increase their grip on Gaza and inch closer to the West Bank.

The IDF started Operation Northern Shield Dec. 4 to neutralize the border tunnels dug by Hezbollah from Lebanon into Israeli territory. But the goal of Israel’s operation is apparently not only to protect residents of northern Israel from Hezbollah fighters.

Indeed, at a meeting with the heads of the towns and villages in the region on Dec. 11, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu painted a horrific scenario in which “on some rainy, foggy day, Hezbollah emerges from the tunnels and kidnaps our people.” But according to the prime minister, there is more to the the tunnel network he'd said earlier on Dec. 4 “is part of a regional and global network of terror and aggression directed and funded by Iran.” The operation on the border with Lebanon is targeted at “Iran’s terror arm in Lebanon," he emphasized. Seated next to Netanyahu at that same event, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot promised “to keep hitting the Iranian entrenchment in the northern arena.”

Although Hezbollah has had access to the tunnels for two or three years, the organization has not used them. Israel’s intelligence community believes Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has no interest in attacking Israel as long as his forces are deployed in Syria and his precision missile project is in its infancy. Although Hezbollah relies on Iran, it is first and foremost focused on internal matters. Like other groups that have become established movements, such as Sinn Fein in Ireland, it bears responsibility for the welfare of civilians if it wants to exert control and maintain its power.

In fact, ever since Israel withdrew its troops from Lebanon in May 2000, Nasrallah has initiated no war against Israel. Right after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, he declared that had he known Israel would land such a heavy blow on Lebanon, he would have foregone the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers that set off the deadly Israeli reaction.

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This time, Hezbollah has wisely avoided giving Israel an excuse to strike Lebanon and is letting the Israelis celebrate their victory at the mouth of each tunnel it unearths. Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Beri said on Dec. 11 that the Israel Defense Forces can do whatever they want within their territory, but not within Lebanon. In a Haaretz opinion piece on Feb. 7, Ronen Dangoor, the former deputy head of research in the prime minister’s office, warned that Israel and Hezbollah would each pay a heavy economic and social price if they go to war again, and the status quo would be restored until the next round of violence.

A verbal dispute that erupted on Dec. 17 between Lebanese and Israeli soldiers, with rifles drawn on both sides, demonstrated the volatility of the situation. A hasty reaction by a soldier could trigger a major conflagration. Dangoor suggested that instead of beating the drums of war, Israel should ask a third party such as Russia, which has displayed a growing interest in the region, to act as a “hotline” between Jerusalem and Beirut. Rather than risking lives, he added, the two sides are better off in negotiations to settle their ongoing disputes over the strip of land on the Israel-Lebanon-Syria border known as Shebaa Farms and over control of offshore gas reserves. However, the Israeli government believes that what cannot be achieved by force can be achieved by more force. On Dec. 13, Netanyahu expressed this philosophy in typically sharp, simplistic fashion: “Whoever attacks us and whoever tries to attack us will pay with his life. Our enemies know this and we will find them."

Israel’s enemies know that the IDF is the strongest military force in the Middle East. Presumably, they read reports citing “foreign sources” and assume that the large complex outside the southern town of Dimona is not a production facility for perfume atomizers. This knowledge explains Tehran’s restraint in the face of repeated Israeli attacks on its targets in Syria and was presumably the main incentive for members of the Arab League, including the Palestine Liberation Organization and members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, offering Israel peace and normalization in return for its withdrawal to the 1967 border lines with certain agreed border adjustments.

Netanyahu, however, refuses to recognize the “lands for peace” formula. At a Dec. 16 meeting with Israeli ambassadors, Netanyahu said, "The Arab states are looking for links with the strong,” adding, “Cultivating strengths gives us diplomatic power” that enables normalization with the Arab world even without progress in negotiations with the Palestinians. The hope that such progress would pave the way for Israeli ties with Arab states “was shelved under Oslo governments,” he said, referring to the Labor-led governments that adopted the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.

Successive Israeli governments under Netanyahu, together with Palestinian rejectionist organizations, spare no effort to ensure that the hopes engendered by the Oslo process remain shelved. As always, the people of both nations are the ones who pay the price. Netanyahu asked the heads of local councils in Israel’s north to imagine the “killing sprees” Hezbollah fighters would have launched through the tunnels. Residents of Israeli settlements in the West Bank do not have to imagine killers emerging from beneath their doorsteps. For them, they are an almost daily occurrence. How does the government propose to change this reality? As always, by expanding the settlement enterprise, which makes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a laughingstock in his people’s eyes and strengthens his domestic and external rivals.

While Israel takes forceful action against what Netanyahu describes as Iran’s entrenchment in the northern arena, his government is helping the same enemy entrench along Israel’s southern front. Israel’s cease-fire arrangement with the Gaza Strip last month stabilized the regime of the Hamas movement, which enjoys the support of Iran and its satellites. From the besieged Gaza Strip, the road is short to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Encouraged by Israel, Qatar, which supports Hamas and has a special relationship with Iran, is increasing its influence in the territories. The strengthening of the Hamas state in Gaza and perpetuation of Israel’s policy of separation between Gaza and West Bank Palestinians hasten the collapse of the Palestinian Authority under Abbas’ leadership and destroy prospects of peace. Sadly, there is no glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel.

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Found in: tunnels, benjamin netanyahu, iranian influence, hezbollah in lebanon, hamas, idf

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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