Hugh Fitzgerald: Hezbollah’s Nasrallah Plucks “Victory” from the Jaws of Defeat


As the world now knows, in its six-week-long Operation Northern Shield, the Israel Defense Forces uncovered, and destroyed, six huge tunnels built  by the terrorist group Hezbollah, that ran from Lebanon deep underground and into Israel’s Galilee. The IDF had been aware for several years of Hezbollah’s ongoing tunnel building — the precise extent of that knowledge has not been revealed  — but was apparently content to let Hezbollah complete its expensive and exhausting task before destroying them. Prime Minister Netanyahu said on January 27 that  Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah was “embarrassed” in the wake of Israel’s success in identifying and destroying the series of cross-border attack tunnels from Lebanon: “He and his men invested tremendous effort in the surprise weapon of the tunnels, including digging them — contrary to what he said — in recent years and in recent months. Within six weeks we completely deprived him of that weapon.”

Nasrallah, who for weeks after Israel declared an end to Operation Northern Shield, had remained silent on the discovery and destruction of his tunnels, claimed counter-intuitively, indeed ludicrously, that the Israeli destruction of the tunnels was a victory for Hezbollah. “’The Israelis discovered a number of tunnels after many years, and it’s not a surprise. The surprise is that these tunnels, they took some time to find,’ Nasrallah said on the al-Mayadeen channel. ‘One of the tunnels discovered in recent weeks is 13 or 14 years old,’ said a smiling Nasrallah. The Israeli operation brought to light the ‘failure’ of the country’s intelligence services, he added.” So the Israelis “failed” because they did not discover these tunnels, he says, until recently, by which he implies they had been there for many years.

But the Israelis have already told us that for several years they had been aware of Hezbollah’s tunnel operations, though they may not have known precisely where each tunnel began in Lebanon, or where it emerged in Israel, or how deep underground the tunnel had been dug. They were not taken completely by surprise, as Nasrallah suggests.

Nasrallah also claimed in his January 26 television appearance that “the tunnels were hardly central to Hezbollah’s attack plan in a future war, and that Israeli leaders had inflated their importance ‘to leave the [army] with a significant achievement’ to boast of.”

But Nasrallah’s own behavior — his  stunned silence for two weeks, after the Israelis announced the finding and destruction of the six tunnels — suggest that this was a grievous loss for Hezbollah. Nasrallah did confirm the Israeli leaders’ accusations that “Part of our plan for the next war is to enter the Galilee, a part of our plan we are capable of, God willing. The important thing is that we have this capability and we have had it for years.”

No, the important thing is that Hezbollah no longer has that capability. All the tunnels it built at such terrific cost through solid rock have now been destroyed. And there is no possibility of building new tunnels that will go undetected, now that the Israels have learned so much about locating even the deepest and longest tunnels,  a result of the experience they gained in Operation Northern Shield, in which they used for the first time what has been described as a new “secret weapon” in tunnel detection. The IDF is now fixed laser-like on the Northern Galilee, and any new tunnels that Nasrallah might dare to build.

But, Nasrallah claimed, “The uncovering of the tunnels does not affect by 10 percent our plans to take over the Galilee. If we decide to do it — even if they’ve destroyed the tunnels — can’t we rebuild them?” He also suggested there may be attack tunnels on the Israeli-Lebanese border which Israel has not yet discovered.

No, he will have not be able to rebuild them, now that the IDF has the Lebanese border with the Galilee under a microscope. He can allude in face-saving fashion to attack tunnels Israel has not discovered, but given his track record of lies, few will believe him. The Israelis, of course, are taking no chances. Avi Dichter, former head of the Shin Bet, and the head of the Knesset’s Defense Committee, has declared that the IDF believes it has destroyed all the existing tunnels, but is going to continue to act on the assumption that there may be more.

“To enter the Galilee, you do not need tunnels,” Nasrallah said. “Yes, tunnels can be a helping factor in entering the Galilee, in a limited and partial manner. But an operation of that degree, if it were decided for it to happen one day, would require all of the borders, valleys, hills.”

Nasrallah now attempts to downgrade the importance of these tunnels, calling them ”a helping factor…in a limited and partial manner.” But that is not how Hezbollah saw them when it devoted enormous sums and energy to excavating through solid rock these massive underground structures more than one hundred feet underground. It saw them as a game-changer that would allow 1,500 Hezbollah terrorists to suddenly appear above-ground in the Galilee, taking by surprise Israeli civilians who could be kidnapped or killed, and holding onto territory where those civilians live, and from which Hezbollah would in effect be holding the whole population hostage, making it difficult for the IDF to counterattack.

Outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said in farewell interviews in mid-January that Hezbollah had planned to use its array of underground attack tunnels to carry out a surprise invasion of Israel that would “throw Israel off balance and cause an earthquake in Israeli society.” He told Hadashot TV news that Hezbollah “had grandiose notions. They were looking many years ahead, to a war or wide escalation, where they [believed they] would have a surprise, an ace in their deck.” Now that his tunnels have been destroyed, Nasrallah’s attempt  to minimize the significance of the tunnels is understandable.

At the same time as those 1,500 terrorists, as a first wave, were to have emerged from the tunnels, the plan was that from southern Lebanon, in order to cover the invasion through the tunnels, Hezbollah — according to Eisenkot — “planned a massive artillery bombardment of IDF bases. [They aimed to] gain control of a piece of Israeli territory and hold it for weeks,” he said. He did not mention still another arrow in Hezbollah’s quiver: the 140,000 missiles that Hezbollah now possesses, and that could be lobbied into Israel, complementing the artillery volleys, and the thousands of tunneleering terrorists whom Hezbollah figured would be seizing, and holding, parts of the Galilee.

Nasrallah neglected to add, of course, that thanks to the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran by the Trump administration, the Iranians have been suffering economically, and in turn, have had to cut support to Hezbollah.

His forces are also meeting with hostility in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is seen by the Christians and Sunni Arabs as unbalancing that country’s sectarian power-sharing  arrangements, and physically threatening Lebanese opponents. Furthermore, by threatening aggression against Israel, and using southern Lebanon as one gigantic Hezbollah base for such aggression, Nasrallah is endangering Lebanon. In any war between Israel and Hezbollah, Lebanon will pay. Hezbollah claims to be “defending Lebanon” against the Israelis, but until Hezbollah showed up, there was no need for any such defense: the Lebanon-Israel border had always been peaceful. Hezbollah’s aggression led to the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War. Now its 140,000 missiles aimed at Israel are the very thing that might lead to a much larger conflict with Israel and, in the ensuing war, to the destruction of much of southern Lebanon. Many in Lebanon are unhappy with Hezbollah, but have been physically cowed by the terrorist group.

Nasrallah said in his January 26 address that “Israel is claiming that Hezbollah dug them. I don’t have to say that I or Hezbollah dug the tunnels, because we always prefer to keep ambiguity on defense. We have no reason to work for free for Israel,” he said. He added: “I won’t confirm or deny if all of the tunnels have been uncovered.”

Aside from the boys-just-want-to-have-fun mock-deniability, since everyone in the world knows who built those tunnels, Nasrallah is right to neither confirm or deny (taking a leaf from Israel’s notebook) exactly how many tunnels there are. Israel says that it has found six, but as Avi Dichter said in the Knesset, Israel is perfectly prepared to uncover more, and to destroy them.

Nasrallah said he had refrained up to this point from commenting on the IDF’s operation because he “did not wish to assist Netanyahu and Eisenkot in their media campaign.”

Nasrallah refrained from commenting for two weeks after Operation Northern Shield ended for one reason only: he was too stunned by the Israeli success in finding and destroying all six tunnels, to respond. He finally offered, with a false swagger, a dismissal of the IDF’s feat, asking in effect “what took you so long?”

He also insisted that Operation Northern Shield “has not ended, despite the Israelis having announced its completion. Digging is still going on.”

Nasrallah is suggesting that Israel has not found all of the tunnels, that their claim to have brought the anti-tunnel operation to an end is false, that they are still digging. And if they are, so what? That is very much in Israel’s favor. Put otherwise: “The IDF has ended Phase One of Operation Northern Shield. We have found and totally destroyed six Hezbollah tunnels, completely ruining their plans for a future invasion of the Galilee by thousands of Hezbollah terrorists. While we believe that all such tunnels have been destroyed, we will of course continue to monitor the border area with Lebanon for any tunneling activity we might have missed, and for any tunnels that Hezbollah tries to construct in the future.’’

Nasrallah seems to think that it matters when Israel discovered the terrorist tunnels; he even taunts the Israelis for not having discovered them sooner. But we know that the Israelis in fact did discover some of those tunnels — we don’t know which ones  — several years ago, having been alerted to the sounds of digging near the Lebanese border by Israeli civilians. They could afford to wait, and watch, as over several years Hezbollah plowed money and manpower into digging its tunnels, hundreds of feet long, and through solid rock, until it had finished its task, at which point the whole project could be brought crashing down before any of the tunnels could be used. In attempting to present an obvious and colossal defeat at the hands of the IDF into a kind of victory, Nasrallah merely makes himself an object of ridicule. And when you are a terrorist leader whose effectiveness depends on being feared, that is the last thing in the world you wish to be.

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