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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Operation “Northern Shield” Could Reshape the Northern Front

Filed under: Hizbullah, Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Lebanon

Operation “Northern Shield” Could Reshape the Northern Front
Hizbullah fighter saluting the Hizbullah and Lebanese flags in southern Lebanon. (Arab Press)

The discovery of Hizbullah’s invasion tunnels has removed a critical component of the organization’s and Iran’s plan for war against Israel, expected to break out at some time. The discovery robbed them of the ability to surprise Israel through an offensive (under)ground assault into Israeli territory, which was to be a central element in creating a shock to the Israeli psyche and challenge to the country’s security. It is compelling Hizbullah and Iran to reassess their perception of the entire conflict. In addition, it has again embarrassed Iran and its proxies because it exhibits Israel’s superior level of intelligence once more, following the exposure of Iran’s nuclear archive, which was brought to Israel.

The question right now is to what extent Israel will succeed in leveraging this intelligence disclosure and toward creating the framework within which the conflict in the northern front will be conducted, with an emphasis on the following objectives:

  1. Teaching Lebanon and the international arena to understand that Hizbullah, as an Iranian proxy, is not the “shield of Lebanon,” but is a huge danger to that country. This is because Hizbullah is developing strong offensive capabilities against Israel from within Lebanese civilian facilities and is even working beyond the international border (inside Israeli territory) to serve Iranian interests only. Hizbullah acts in a manner that is a clear violation of Israeli sovereignty and justifies a sharp Israeli response that will cause harm to the country of Lebanon and its citizens. Israel’s caution in preventing the situation from deteriorating should also be presented as an Israeli effort to prevent damage to Lebanon. The ones putting Lebanon in danger are Hizbullah and Iran, while the one who is looking after it is Israel.
  2. Increasing the deterrence against Iran and Hizbullah against a backdrop of Israel’s penetration of their intelligence and communications so that they will be reluctant to continue their attempts to develop other elements threatening Israel (such as improving the accuracy of their rockets and building infrastructure on the Golan Heights).
  3. Educating Europe that any attempt to differentiate between the military wing and the political wing of Hizbullah is ridiculous. Does anyone really believe that a handful of rebellious, diligent Hizbullah terrorists decided independently to dig a complex system of tunnels, which demanded so many resources and extended into Israeli territory? It is amazing to see how the Europeans have confirmed the existence of the tunnels and have expressed their support of Israel’s right to destroy them, yet they refuse to blame Hizbullah and to acknowledge that there is no distinction between the military and political wings of this organization. A change in the European position would lead to a significant shift in Hizbullah’s ability to manipulate the Lebanese system, and would penalize it with the heavy and appropriate price they should pay for their violation of Israeli sovereignty.
  4. Encouraging UNIFIL to finally implement UN Resolution 1701, asserting that only the Lebanese army is allowed to operate in southern Lebanon, and to make use of the extension of its mandate that it received in 2016. So far, UNIFIL has confirmed the existence of the tunnel, but it has refrained from asserting that Hizbullah has thereby significantly violated Israel’s sovereignty.
  5. The intensified focus on Iran’s role as the master dictating Hizbullah’s activities. It is clear that the buildup of Hizbullah’s forces, especially since the Second Lebanon War, including the invasion tunnels that cross into Israel, is intended to serve Iranian purposes and to enable Iran to strike at Israel in circumstances where its nuclear program is threatened. This is the reason why Iran is investing so many resources into digging the tunnels and improving the accuracy of the rockets, as well as dedicating its Iraqi proxies to Hizbullah’s ground offensive.

Qais al-Khazali
Qais al-Khazali, the Baghdad-born commander of the Iraqi Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, toured the Lebanon-Israel border with Hizbullah in late 2017.
Qais al-Khazali visits Israel-Lebanon border
Qais al-Khazali, second from the left, surveying the terrain.

The high media profile that Prime Minister Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Eizenkot have given to this operation is intended to influence international, Israeli, Arab, Lebanese, and Iranian consciousness in this context. However, it needs to be accompanied by diplomatic activity to achieve these objectives. Evidently, the problem is that European cynicism is creating a significant obstacle to realizing these goals, and the tense relationship between the United States and Europe is eroding the power of American leverage in this regard.