Israel says mission on Lebanon border ends as last Hezbollah tunnel found

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This file photo taken on Dec. 19, 2018 shows a view of Israeli excavation equipment at work near the concrete barrier along the border with Lebanon, near the northern Israeli town of Metula. (AFP Photo)
This file photo taken on Dec. 19, 2018 shows a view of Israeli excavation equipment at work near the concrete barrier along the border with Lebanon, near the northern Israeli town of Metula. (AFP Photo)

Israeli troops discovered the sixth and final tunnel dug by Hezbollah militants for cross-border attacks, the military announced Sunday, saying it was wrapping up its operation along the Lebanese border.

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the final tunnel was the largest one discovered so far, running hundreds of meters (yards) from under a Lebanese home and deep into Israeli territory. Israel launched the "Operation Northern Shield" on Dec. 4 to detect and destroy what it called a vast network of Hezbollah tunnels aimed for militants to sneak across the border and carry out attacks.

Conricus said the latest tunnel originated from the Lebanese border town of Ramyeh. He said it was 55 meters deep and ran 800 meters inside Lebanese territory and also "dozens" of meters into Israel. It included stairs, a rail system and a wide a passageway that allowed for the movement of equipment and a large number of forces.

Israel alleges Hezbollah had planned to use the tunnels to kidnap or kill its civilians or soldiers, and to seize a slice of Israeli territory in the event of any hostilities. It has said, however, that they were not yet operational.

The tunnel would be destroyed in the coming days, Conricus said, adding that while more tunnels still existed on the Lebanese side of the border, this effectively marked the end of the ambitious military operation.

"We have achieved the goal that we set out to achieve a month and a half ago," he said. "According to our intelligence, there are no longer any cross-border attack tunnels into Israel."

Israel and the United Nations say the tunnels violate a cease-fire resolution that ended a devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. Conricus says the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as UNIFIL, had been updated on the latest development.

UNIFIL has been monitoring the border area between Israel and Lebanon since 1978, and currently has 10,000 UN troops deployed in the region.

Conricus also reiterated that Israel holds the Lebanese government accountable "for any act of violence or violation of 1701," the UN resolution that ended the 2006 war.

In the wake of its discoveries, Israel has asked the international community to impose tough sanctions on Hezbollah and begin to act against its state-within-a-state operation in Lebanon.

The military said its forces would stay deployed along the border area to monitor for any other possible underground activity, and said it holds the Lebanese government responsible for everything happening in its territory.

The powerful Shiite militant Hezbollah, which acts independently in Lebanon, has yet to comment on the Israeli discoveries.

Israel has long called for a crackdown on the Iran-backed Hezbollah, a heavily armed mini-army that is believed to possess an arsenal of some 150,000 rockets that can reach nearly all of Israel. In recent years, Hezbollah has been bogged down in fighting in Syria on behalf of Bashar Assad's regime. But with that civil war winding down, Israeli security officials fear Hezbollah is refocusing its attention on Israel.

A month-long war in 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah killed more than 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and more than 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

The highly publicized Israeli operation to expose and destroy the tunnels has gone ahead without drawing a military response from Hezbollah.

Israel says all operations have taken place within its territory.

News of the operation's conclusion comes in the final week of Israel's outgoing military chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot's four-year tenure. The latest discovery, coupled with a weekend strike against suspected Iranian and Hezbollah sites near the Damascus International Airport that is attributed to Israel, was perceived in Israeli media as Eisenkot's "parting shot" as he leaved office.

He gave a series on interviews over the weekend summarizing his term and focusing on shifting the Israeli military's attention toward Iran directly instead of just engaging its lesser proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. In a New York Times interview published on Friday Eisenkot said that Israel "has struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit" as part of a shadow showdown with Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force.

Eisenkot also revealed that the government approved his shift in strategy in January 2017, stepping up air strikes in Syria. In 2018 alone, he said Israel's air force dropped 2,000 bombs in Syria.

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