Israeli minister's warning follows discovery Hezbollah 'attack tunnels'
Lebanon-Israel border tense after minister threatens incursion
There was heightened tension along the border between Lebanon and Israel on Saturday after a senior Israeli official said its military might cross over to destroy Hezbollah attack tunnels under the frontier.
The Israeli army, which has mobilised near the border demarcation line in recent days, reportedly fired in the air on Saturday as a routine Lebanese army patrol passed by on the other side of the border, Lebanon‘s state-run National News Agency (NNA) reported.
However, Israeli military spokesman Avichay Adraee, said that the army fired at three people who “appear to be Hezbollah members,” after they leveraged foggy weather conditions to approach a tunnel excavation site near the border.
He said that the three men fled after Israeli forces opened fire and noted that excavation works have continued normally.
“The Israeli Defence Forces warn against approaching the border fence and areas where the army is working to expose and neutralize terrorist tunnels” he said on Twitter. “Whoever tries to approach and obstruct the IDF’s efforts is risking their own lives.”
In a follow-up post, he uploaded a picture of the headquarters of the Lebanese government and stated that the government is complicit in Hezbollah’s violations along the border because it is not preventing the group from breaching UN resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between the two enemy states.
"The Lebanese government is responsible for everything that happens or comes from inside it's territory," read the caption of the photo.
Earlier on Friday, Israel Katz, who heads the transport and intelligence ministries, told Radio Tel Aviv that the Israeli army may cross into Lebanon if necessary.
“If we think that in order to thwart the tunnels that one needs to operate on the other side, then we will operate on the other side of the border,” he said.
His comments came a day after the UN peacekeeping force Unifil confirmed the existence of an underground passage across the border, near the northern Israeli town of Metulla. Unifil commander Stefano Del Col described it as a “serious occurrence” and said his team was pursuing “urgent follow-up action”.
Mr Katz’s statement coincided with an NNA report that an Israeli excavator briefly crossed the border demarcation line near the Lebanese town of Mais Al-Jabal in Marjayoun, the first such incursion since the Israeli military on Tuesday launched an open-ended operation to destroy what it said was a network of tunnels built by Hezbollah to infiltrate northern Israel.
However, a Unifil spokeswoman on Saturday denied the report, saying that an investigative team had determined that there was no breach of the so-called Blue Line, which was established by UN peacekeepers after Israeli forces withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000.
Meanwhile, the head of Unifil held separate meetings with Lebanese Army Commander Gen Joseph Aoun and General Security head Maj Gen Abbas Ibrahim on Friday to discuss developments along the border.
The meetings came a day after the Israeli army said it had identified a second "attack tunnel" originating from the Lebanese border village of Ramyeh, a few hundred metres from the Blue Line. Unifil has not yet confirmed its existence.
Maj Gen Yoel Strick, an Israeli commander, presented Maj Gen Del Col with aerial photos of a group of houses in Ramyeh where the tunnel allegedly starts. He called on Unifil to work with the Lebanese army to investigate and destroy the passageway.
It is not clear how many attack tunnels the Israeli army believes there are along the border but Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said on Thursday that the army was operating in three areas where tunnels had been discovered.
"We are aware of additional tunnels," he said.
An officer in the Israeli army engineering corps, Col Ziv Nimni, said the Israeli army was relying on “passive seismic technology” to identify where tunnel drilling was taking place throughout the northern border area. Sensors in the ground relay information to sensors at the border fence, as well as to receptors in patrol vehicles along the border, he said.
Hezbollah not commented on Israel’s actions along the border, but its affiliated Al Manar network has aired statements by Israeli analysts and commentators that criticise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli army for avoiding incursions into Lebanese territory because of what they described as a fear of reprisals from Hezbollah.
The Hezbollah-run Central Military Media posted photos and videos of Israeli digging operations along the border and reported comments by Amos Yadlin, a former general in the Israeli air force, in which he said that the operation to neutralise attack tunnels “is important, but it should not be inflated beyond what it is. The tunnels are not Hezbollah's ace. Hezbollah's ace is its firepower."