Operation Northern Shield: Q&A

The IDF has launched an operation to uncover and neutralize Hezbollah terror tunnels in the north. Amir Rapaport's weekly column attempts to answer questions arising from the operation: Why now? Is this operation really necessary? And who actually deters the other side more effectively – Israel or Hezbollah?

IDF activity along the Israel-Lebanon border (Photo: AP)

The ongoing operation is not comparable to Operation Litani, Operation Grapes of Wrath or Operation Accountability. It is definitely not an activity reminiscent, in scope, of the Second Lebanon War. Operation Northern Shield, announced this week so dramatically, is unusual. During its first few days, not a shot has been fired, but the potential for escalation is substantial. The activity is expected to last several weeks, at least, but so far, there are quite a few question marks surrounding it.

Is it actually an operation?

In fact, it is not. According to dry military definitions, the activity involves an operational plan and the assignment of forces, and quite a few scenarios of potential escalation have been taken into consideration, but as this is being written – the effort consists of engineering activities performed entirely within Israeli territory, with no fire and no maneuvering elements. Consequently, the title "operation" is an overstatement. Operation Northern Shield has thus far necessitated some reinforcement of forces and command centers in the north, as part of the preparations for an escalation scenario, but the lion's share of the activity is performed by no more than a single IDF unit – the Yahalom Unit of the Combat Engineering Corps. This unit has grown exponentially in recent years, pursuant to the intensive activities against the Hamas tunnels in the Gaza Strip.

It is important to note the common denominator of the fights against the tunnels in the two separate sectors, but the differences are substantial – in the south, the soil is sandy and very soft. In the north, the soil is solid rock. Along the northern border, in the Western Galilee, the excavation of tunnels is nearly impossible. In the area where the tunnel the IDF is currently neutralizing was spotted, Hezbollah had taken advantage of a unique and very steep terrain feature. They excavated the tunnel at a depth of 25 meters, to make it difficult to spot.

What is the technology developed for spotting tunnels in the south, and is it equally effective against the Hezbollah tunnels?

The breakthrough that enabled the spotting of more and more tunnels opposite the Gaza Strip did not materialize overnight, but rather owing to a combination of technologies and several strokes of genius on the part of graduates of the Talpiot training program of the Israeli defense establishment. The integration of several sensor types and new methods of operation led to the best results ever recorded in the history of armed forces facing underground tunnels (which dates back to the times of the Roman legions facing the rebel fighters of Bar Kokhba, and possibly even to earlier times).

Is the operation in the north really necessary?

No. In internal discussions within the defense establishment, quite a few speakers thought it would have been better to avoid destroying the tunnels at this time. The proponents of that view reasoned that it would be better to allow Hezbollah to invest more and more energy in the tunnels, of which the IDF was fully aware, and destroy the tunnels in the future, only in the event of a war – or turn them into a trap.

The IDF has been aware of Hezbollah's tunnel plan as well as of specific tunnels for some time. Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot and his intended replacement, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, are intimately familiar with those tunnels, as both had served as commanders of IDF Northern Command. As Eizenkot himself revealed this week, the cabinet had authorized Operation Northern Shield as far back as November 7. That was one week before the last round of fighting opposite Hamas, following which Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman resigned.

So why now?

Apparently, non-operational considerations have played a role in the process leading to the decision to go ahead. Chief of Staff Eizenkot announced a while ago that the demolition of the tunnels in the south would be completed by the end of December 2018. Evidently, he wanted to close the case on a similar task in the north before his imminent retirement.

What about the new Minister of Defense, Benjamin Netanyahu? Apparently, Eizenkot's recommendation to launch Operation Northern Shield suited him, too, owing to political considerations (even though the political considerations were not the motive).

What is the actual risk of the operation leading to escalation and even to war in the north?

The risk exists, but it is not particularly severe. Both sides are not interested in a war, but Hezbollah demonstrated in the past that it is committed to every inch of Lebanese sovereignty, so if Israeli forces cross the border, even by mistake, it might respond with fire and may or may not assume responsibility for it. At the same time, one should bear in mind the fact that every Israeli attack against Iran and Hezbollah (and many such attacks were staged in recent years) embodies an escalation potential of its own.

Operation Northern Shield should be viewed not just as a stand-alone operation, but rather within the broader context of the extreme tension in the north (including the insistence of Iran and Hezbollah to establish a plant for high-precision missiles on Lebanese soil). In the big picture, the northern front is on the verge of the boiling point as long as Israel insists on countering, by force, the plans of Iran and Hezbollah for Syria and Lebanon, while they insist on implementing just the opposite strategy.

So who deters the other side more effectively – Israel or Hezbollah?

Embarrassingly enough, the deterrence is mutual.