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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Lebanon quietly defiant as Israel destroys Hezbollah tunnel

Most Lebanese living near the border say they do not believe Israel’s claims though the UN has confirmed the existence of a tunnel

The National visits Kfar Kila in Lebanon to witness Israeli excavation. AFP
The National visits Kfar Kila in Lebanon to witness Israeli excavation. AFP

Every morning since last Tuesday locals from Kfar Kila, a small village at the Lebanese border with Israel, have woken up to the sound of digging.

“They haven’t stopped, even with the fog and rain”, says the owner of a small café on the town’s main roundabout. Here, the main attraction is the view of the wall built by Israel in 2012, now covered with brightly coloured drawings of the Dome of the Rock and posters of Hezbollah “martyrs”.

Clearly visible behind the 5 to 7-metre cement wall, the tops of the Israeli excavation machines move up and down regularly, drilling into the stony ground. A small grey Israeli camera watches over the Lebanese road that runs alongside the wall.

With much fanfare, Israel announced earlier this week the discovery and destruction of a cross-border tunnel originating from Kfar Kila built by Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed party which Israel considers to be a terrorist organisation.

After an on-site visit on the Israeli side with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) confirmed on Thursday “the existence of a tunnel near Metulla”, the Israeli town which faces Kfar Kila.

Some Lebanese officials have denied the existence of a tunnel, but Unifil’s statement will put pressure on the government to cooperate in taking action against it. Considering Hezbollah’s strong political influence, this could represent a worrying escalation in tensions both within Lebanon and between the two countries.

Israel also reported the discovery of a second tunnel originating from Ramyeh, a town an hour south of Kfar Kila, and asked Unifil to destroy it. “Israel is trying to get the international community to pay attention to Hezbollah’s actions”, Hanin Ghaddar, a Friedmann visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, told The National.

The Arabic-speaking Israeli army spokesperson, Avichay Adraee, warned Kfar Kila inhabitants on Twitter to “rethink” whether it is safe to continue living in the town, comparing the tunnel to a “ticking bomb”.

Speaking before the Unifil statement was released, like many others in the town, the café owner laughed defiantly at Israel’s claims. “Israel is making this all up. They’re afraid of Hezbollah” he says, watching the Israeli machines at work. “There are no tunnels. Hezbollah doesn’t need them if they want to launch an attack against Israel. They have rockets”.

Tunnels are known to have been used to great effect by Hezbollah during their last war against Israel in 2006, though the party is rumoured to now be capable of building precision rockets, which is much more worrying for Israel.

Hezbollah waited until Thursday afternoon to react officially via a press release published after a meeting between top party officials and its ally Amal, also a Shia movement.

They did not deny the existence of a tunnel and stated that they “took note of the Israeli enemy’s attempts to harass Lebanon”, and that “the resistance is ready to stop the enemy to implement its goals and ambitions”.

Though Hezbollah is predominant, both parties exert a strong influence in South Lebanon. Journalists entering Kfar Kila with an official permit from the Lebanese army also need the authorisation of a “second party”, said an employee from the local municipality, which is controlled by Amal.

She would not reveal its identity, but one thing is sure: nothing in the region escapes Hezbollah’s watchful eye. After consultation with the “second party”, the local mayor said The National was allowed to talk to locals but declined an interview request.

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People in Kfar Kila reported that Israel has been active in two different areas these past few days. The first is close to the town centre, and the second a little over a kilometre south.

A Lebanese journalist filming the Israeli excavation machines on his phone offers an explanation. “They’re not destroying a tunnel here” he says. “They’re building a cement wall underground to stop any other tunnels from going through”.

The second spot fits the area shown on a map tweeted by Mr Adraee claiming that the entrance of the tunnel is located under a cement factory surrounded by olive trees.

On site, the metal gates to the factory are wide open. Tight-lipped employees say they are aware they are being targeted by the IDF, but shrug indifferently. “That’s what they say”, answers the owner. “But there’s no tunnel here”. The building behind him is half finished, with several garage doors on its ground floor and what looks like a functioning apartment on the first floor. From here, Israel is shrouded in thick fog and any excavation activity would be inaudible.

However, local opinions are more divided than it seems. Some in South Lebanon quietly oppose Hezbollah’s predominance and approve of Israel’s move against its tunnels.

“The Israelis are no donkeys. Tunnels are everywhere”, says a fifty-year old man from a Christian village near Kfar Kila who declined to give his name due to security concerns. He claims he used to be a member of the South Lebanon Army, a local militia which fought Hezbollah and cooperated with Israel during the occupation (1978-2000). The man, who works in construction, says that he accidentally saw Hezbollah’s tunnel with his own eyes a year and a half ago.

He fears that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might precipitate Israel and Lebanon into a war while trying to distract from domestic concerns, including accusations of bribery and fraud.

This argument, which is popular among Lebanese media and analysts, was recently rejected by former Israeli minister Moshe Ya’alon.

“There’s an exaggeration in the way it was presented, and I hope that doesn’t hurt us,” Israeli media reported him as saying on Thursday. “But the decision [to do it] was professionally made and came from within the military.”