Israel’s military has launched an operation to find and destroy a network of Hizbollah “attack tunnels” running underground from southern Lebanon into northern Israel.
The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group, dug the tunnels over several years so its fighters could ambush Israeli soldiers and civilians.
The IDF would not say how many tunnels it had found but said that several had already crossed from Lebanese territory into Israel. None of the tunnels were operational yet and there was “no immediate threat” to Israel, the IDF said.
“Whoever tries to attack the State of Israel will pay a heavy price. We are taking determined and responsible action in all sectors simultaneously,” said Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.
Hizbollah did not deny building the tunnels, saying in a statement that Israel was targeting tunnels "allegedly stretching from south Lebanon to settlements in northern occupied Palestine".
“We see Hizbollah’s activities as a flagrant and blatant violation of Israeli sovereignty and it again proves Hizbollah’s complete disregard for UN resolutions,” said Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, an IDF spokesman.
He said some of the tunnels had been dug under Lebanese civilian homes, putting civilians in danger.
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There was no immediate response from Hizbollah to the Israeli accusations.
A spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) told the Telegraph that the border remained calm and that it was coordinating with both countries to avoid an escalation.
The Israeli claim is likely to raise tensions with Hizbollah. Israel bolstered its forces across its northern border ahead of making the announcement, the military said.
The Israeli announcement led to heightened tensions on the Israel-Lebanon border, where the IDF and Hizbollah fought a bloody war in 2006 but have maintained an uneasy truce since.
Israel bolstered its forces across the north while Hizbollah fighters and the Lebanese military were put on heightened alert. By sundown on Tuesday the situation remained tense but calm.
Israel has repeatedly struck Hizbollah targets in Syria as part of its campaign to prevent the militant group and their Iranian backers from embedding in Syrian territory.
However, Mr Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have become more vocal recently about the threat from Hizbollah inside Lebanon.
In a speech to the UN in September, the Israeli leader said Hizbollah had built secret missile sites in Beirut, the Lebanese capital. Both the Lebanese government and Hizbollah strongly denied the claims.
Hizbollah is believed to have around an arsenal of around 150,000 rockets and missiles, some of which are long-range and capable of precision targeting.
Both Israel and Hizbollah predict that a new conflict would be much bloodier than the 2006 war, which saw more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians killed along with 44 Israeli civilians.
The IDF said Tuesday that it had entered and was preparing to destroy one tunnel which ran from the Lebanese village of Kafr Kela, under the border, and into Israeli territory.
The tunnel was roughly 200m long with electricity lines, air vents, and communications systems, the IDF said. Israel said the tunnel began under a civilian house in Kafr Kela. “Hizbollah is using civilian infrastructure for military purposes,” the IDF said.
Israel has long warned that Hizbollah was hiding weapons caches in civilian areas in southern Lebanon, raising the risk that civilians would be killed by Israeli strikes if fighting broke out.
Israel also accused Hizbollah of violating UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war. The resolution forbids both Israeli forces and Hizbollah fighters from entering southernmost area of Lebanon between the Israeli border and the Litani River.
The White House backed Israel’s actions. “The US strongly supports Israel’s efforts to defend its sovereignty and we call on Hizbollah to stop its tunneling into Israel,” said John Bolton, the US national security advisor.
Hizbollah has a complicated relationship with the Lebanese government. The Shia militant group is allied with Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s Christian president, but is at odds with Saad Hariri, the country’s Sunni prime minister, who has openly criticised Hizbollah.
Israel has warned that it holds the Lebanese government responsible for any actions by Hizbollah from Lebanese territory.
Israeli opposition MPs accused Mr Netanyahu of timing the launch of the operation to distract from a corruption scandal swirling around him and his wife.
Israeli police said on Sunday that both Mr and Mrs Netanyahu should be charged in a major bribery case. They deny wrongdoing.
The IDF denied that there was any political motivation, saying that Israel had been monitoring the tunnels for years and set the date for the operation’s launch some time ago.
Israel is confident that it is close to neutralising the threat of tunnels dug by Hamas and other militants in Gaza by building a vast underground barrier around the Gaza Strip.
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The military said it had no plan for a similar barrier on the Lebanese border, where the terrain is rocky and dramatic.
But the military said it had begun a “defensive obstacle project” to thwart the tunnels, including building walls, digging cliffs, and clearing vegetation.