Photo Credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90
View of a Hezbollah tunnel that crosses from Lebanon to Israel, Feb. 14, 2023.

In the summer of 2008, a group of Christian Lebanese from the Jezzine area were making their way by car towards the well-known Maronite summer resort town when it was suddenly forced to stop after being fired on at a Hezbollah roadblock.

They failed to understand why they had been detained and were even more astonished when they were sent for comprehensive questioning as to what they were doing in the area where they lived.

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It was only in hindsight, after they saw the bulldozers, the heavy drilling equipment, and several Asian-looking individuals, that they suddenly realized that the members of the Shi’ite terrorist organization suspected them of being spies, collecting information on the excavation work being carried out on a whole network of fortifications and tunnels in the vicinity of their own homes. The individuals, it later turned out, were professional tunneling consultants from North Korea.

Similar to what the residents of the Christian village of Rumaysh did two weeks ago, the Christians from the Jezzine area asked Hezbollah not to be involved and to stop the activity there. They were mainly concerned that during a war, the village would become a target for Israeli strikes due to Hezbollah’s use of it.

The map of Hezbollah bases in Southern Lebanon that was uploaded to the web 15 years ago. Source: Alma Research and Education Center.

 

When their pleas went unanswered, they or their friends decided to take action, uploading a map to the web with 36 geographical areas or communities circled to show Hezbollah’s deployment there as part of its setup against a possible IDF ground incursion in Lebanon.

More than they sought to cause damage to Hezbollah, or to help Israel, these Christians were trying to protect themselves and to keep the members of the terrorist organization at a safe distance away from them.

Only a few people noticed this mysterious map that was uploaded onto the internet some 15 years ago. It encompassed the entire region between Sidon in the west, Lake Qaraoun in the east, and Marj Ayyun and Nabatiyeh in the south.

But a decade later it was noticed by a bunch of ex-IDF Military Intelligence Directorate soldiers, analysts from the Alma Research and Eduication Center.

This is how that map became the basis for a comprehensive study of the Lebanese terrorist tunnel land, an extremely long and winding underground route that Hezbollah built in the Land of the Cedars, mainly in Southern Lebanon.

Since its establishment in 2018, the Alma Center has focused on the security challenges to the State of Israel along its northern border, and one of its main areas of interest is Hezbollah’s tunnel project.

Into the hard rock
Maj. (res.) Tal Be’eri, the head of the center’s research department and somebody who had himself researched and coordinated the center’s extensive work on Hezbollah’s tunnels in Lebanon, says that this project covers “hundreds of kilometers of underground facilities excavated into the hard rock—much more dangerous, deeper, wider and more difficult to unravel and destroy than anything we have come across in the Gaza Strip in recent months.”

Brig. Gen. (res.) Ronen Manelis says the tunnel system is “10 levels above anything we have come across in Gaza.”

Manelis was the IDF spokesperson, but before that, he was head of the Lebanon Branch in the IDF Northern Command and the intelligence officer of the IDF Gaza Division.

He also served as assistant to the then chief of IDF Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, in the two years preceding 2018’s “Operation Northern Shield” in which six attack tunnels, excavated by Hezbollah in Lebanon and crossing under the border fence into Israeli territory, were exposed and destroyed.

Manelis returned this week to a video clip that Hezbollah put out in 2008.

“In that clip,” he recalls, “in which Hezbollah, using maps and other visual illustrative aids, described how it intended to take over the border communities and the IDF military posts along the northern border, and even beyond that, it depicted a combination of ground, air and naval forces that would take part in the effort to occupy part of the Galilee.

“It did not include a single word about tunnels and underground facilities. That clip was released as part of a military deception exercise, and it took some time for Israel to understand what was really happening along its border. It was only in 2014, following the IDF’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ [war against Hamas in Gaza] that we came to realize that Hezbollah had built a whole network of offensive tunnels crossing into Israel.

“Over the course of time,” Manelis recounts, “the offensive tunnels were deciphered by us more precisely, and in late 2018 we arrived at the point where Israel faced a dilemma that it was not accustomed to dealing with: Should it neutralize the enemy’s capability prior to the enemy having any actual intention to use that specific capacity, or should we wait. Israel, after some complex deliberations at both the military and political policymaking levels, decided to target this infrastructure as part of ‘Operation Northern Shield.’

“The six tunnels that were uncovered, were either destroyed or neutralized, mainly by pumping enormous volumes of concrete into them, and also by blasting them. That was an extremely brave decision,” states Manelis, “Israel neutralized a clear and present danger and a genuine threat. [Hezbollah chief Hassan] Nasrallah was taken aback. I really don’t want to think what might have happened along the northern border had those tunnels been operational today.”

Q: A tunnel heading towards the town of Shlomi?

“The offensive tunnels that were destroyed in 2018 were supposed to enable companies from Hezbollah’s elite Radwan Force to infiltrate Israeli territory without them being spotted when crossing over, to take over military posts and civilian communities along the border, and at the same time to hit the IDF reinforcements rushing to respond.

“One tunnel, which was excavated from inside a private house, crossed the border southwards from Kafr Kila to Metula, a stone’s throw away on the other side of the border fence. Another tunnel departed from the village of Ramyah and reached a point adjacent to Moshav Zarit. An additional tunnel was excavated from the area of the village of Ayta ash-Sha’b towards the neighboring Moshav Shtula, and another one, reaching a depth of 55 meters, which also housed a railway for transporting equipment, also came out of Ramyah,” Manelis says.

Five years and one war that might turn out to still be in its infancy have elapsed since and northern Israel is far from being quiet. The heads of the local municipalities such as Metula Mayor David Azoulai and Shlomi Mayor Gabi Na’aman say that they have not yet received any clear or satisfactory answers to the question of whether or not there are any more Hezbollah attack tunnels crossing the border from Lebanon into Israel.

Na’aman tells of information passed on to him by two members of Knesset, according to which there is a tunnel heading towards Shlomi.

Azoulai tells of complaints made by residents who claim to have heard underground digging noises at night. “I am extremely anxious,” he admits.

Moshe Davidovich, the head of the Asher Regional Council in the Western Galilee, is also concerned. In a meeting held recently at the Knesset’s State Control Committee, he claimed, “IDF officers have told me that there are numerous tunnels in the north.”

In contrast, Maj. Gen. Ori Gordin, the head of the IDF Northern Command, recently made it clear in a conversation he held with local authority heads in the north, at the clubroom of Kibbutz Hanita, that the IDF is engaged in a constant effort to trace terrorist infrastructure both above and below the ground. “If we do find a threat, we won’t keep it a secret from anyone,” he promised.

Following “Operation Northern Shield” in January 2019, Nasrallah, claimed that there were tunnels that the IDF had failed to uncover, even though it had publicly announced the completion of the operation. Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon admitted after the operation that for years he had denied the existence of cross-border tunnels in order to confuse Hezbollah and to create the impression that Israel was not aware of what was going on.

Only two months ago, the French daily newspaper Libération reported that during the current war, the IDF had dropped phosphorus bombs in Southern Lebanon to burn the vegetation and thus expose tunnel exits.

According to Libération, 12 tunnel exits were uncovered and destroyed.

An Israeli military source was quoted as saying to the newspaper that the IDF uses movement sensors, fiber-optic cables, robots, drones and information sources to map out the tunnel network.

It is not wholly clear from the report whether this relates to cross-border attack tunnels or tunnels that form part of the extensive underground defensive and combat setup that Hezbollah has built deep under Southern Lebanon.

Whatever the case might be, although Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels are an important part of the underground story of Southern Lebanon, according to all the indications and the information available, this is only a small part of a much more expansive picture, which has developed there over the last 18 years, a period in which Israel has done next to nothing against the “Tunnel Land” that Hezbollah built across Lebanon.

According to the information collected by Be’eri and the Alma staff from open sources, in addition to the offensive tunnels, Hezbollah has also built in Lebanon a broad network of strategic interregional tunnels covering tens and hundreds of kilometers, which are deployed and connect the chief command centers of the organization in Beirut with the Beqa’a Valley, and from there link with Southern Lebanon.

Moreover, according to Alma, the Hezbollah tunnel network also connects the various staging areas of the terrorist organization within Southern Lebanon itself.

A map of an approximate tunnel route in Lebanon. Credit: Alma Research and Education Center.

‘Approach tunnels’
Be’eri calls this network “The Hezbollah Tunnel Land.” He recounts how North Korean experts provided direct help with this project, and even brings a report from Asharq Al-Awsat, which was given to the popular Saudi newspaper by a senior officer from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

According to that report, a North Korean consultant helped in the construction of a highly sophisticated 25-km.-long (15.5-mile) tunnel in Lebanon, “a tunnel with numerous connection and collection points that Hezbollah used to transport and concentrate its forces.”

Be’eri assumes that there is more than one such tunnel.

“According to the testimonies,” he says, “Hezbollah has carried out fortification works in those geographical areas, using enormous amounts of building materials. The works were carried out by a Korean company called the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation under the supervision of an Iranian officer from the IRGC.

“The actual construction work was carried out by Hezbollah’s Jihad Construction Association, which is in fact a branch of the Iranian Jihad Construction Association, established in 1988. The Jihad Construction used companies under a civilian guise to build the ‘Tunnel Land.’”

“One of them,” so the Alma analysts think, “is the ‘Beqa’a for Construction and Contracting Work,’ or under its previous name, ‘The Iranian Authority for the Construction of Lebanon.’ The company was established in 2005 under the guise of the IRGC, and until 2013 it was headed by the Iranian military engineer Hassan Shateri, a senior IRGC officer with the rank of major general, who was killed in Syria about a decade ago.”

According to Be’eri, “Hezbollah’s strategic tunnels are fitted with underground C2 (command & control) rooms, arms and quartermasters’ stores, field clinics and dedicated tunnel shafts intended for firing various types of missiles (rockets, surface-to-surface missiles, anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles).”

Those shafts, the Alma experts believe, “are concealed and camouflaged, and they cannot be observed from above the ground. They are opened for only a very short period of time for the purpose of missile fire and then immediately closed again, in order to reload the hydraulic launcher with new arms.

“In addition, the tunnels enable forces [on foot or in vehicles] to be transported from one location to another for reinforcement, defense or conducting an offensive, all in the safest, most protected, and concealed manner possible. We believe that Hezbollah’s strategic tunnels also enable the movement of motorcycles, ATVs [all-terrain vehicles], and both small and medium-sized vehicles.

“The map with which we set off,” he confirms, “is the map that was uploaded to the internet by anonymous figures, perhaps from the Christian surroundings that had been disturbed by the Hezbollah presence in the area. Our most up-to-date information today indicates that the entire area—from Sidon in the west to Lake Qaraoun in the east and Nabatiyeh in the south—is linked by a network of strategic tunnels, which also serve as a platform for the storage and launching of arms, as well as for transporting forces.

“This is topography that combines tunnels and wadis where the tunnel networks are interrupted. Beyond the offensive and strategic tunnels,” Be’eri explains, “there are a further three types of tunnels: ‘Approach tunnels’ that allow Hezbollah to stealthily approach the border area without being exposed, and then, at least potentially, to try and breach the IDF border obstacle; [local] tactical tunnels, which are located in Hezbollah’s first and second defensive strips, to the Litani River, and from there inwards into the heart of Lebanon—they serve the organization for defense and for combat; as well as booby-trapped tunnels that are filled with explosives after being excavated in order to explode them, at a time to be chosen by Hezbollah, alongside Israeli targets such as an Israeli community or IDF post.

“As far as the issue of underground facilities is concerned,” Be’eri sums up, “Hezbollah is at the head of the food chain, and it is of course led by Iran. Hamas is Hezbollah’s industrious student, and the tunnels that it has established in Lebanon were excavated over a period of many years, in stone, so that their natural defense against a powerful strike is much stronger than those dug by Hamas in the sand of Gaza, in the south.”

‘A good intelligence picture’
“Apart from that, Manelis points out, “the underground network that Hezbollah built in Southern Lebanon, which includes bunkers and arms depots, enables it to move in a more protected and concealed manner between the villages, whose residents are Hezbollah men, and the open terrain, from which attacks are carried out. For example, the attack in which IDF soldiers Goldwasser and Regev were abducted in 2006 [the incident that triggered the Second Lebanon War—N.S.].

“That underground network also houses positions, which when the command is relayed, following a whistle, are meant to be occupied by members of the Radwan force.”

Manelis believes that Israel’s overall intelligence picture today regarding Hezbollah’s underground network is “not bad, and even a good one. It is slightly different to the Gaza area,” he points out, “in the Gaza Strip, everything is buried under a densely-populated built-up area. In Lebanon, there are both built-up areas and open terrain. But compared with the situation in Israel’s south, Hezbollah’s underground facilities are in a league of their own. They have genuinely built here an underground monster.

“It certainly won’t be easy,” Manelis assesses, “but, the fact that we have a good intelligence picture enables our forces to train in an orderly manner. They ought to know where the underground facilities are located, and I guess that even now, while the IDF is operating north of the border, its airstrikes are also hitting underground facilities and infrastructure.”

Q: Do you think that Israel should be taking the initiative to operate in an orderly fashion in order to destroy the Hezbollah Tunnel Land, as it does in the Gaza Strip?

“Israel should be operating wherever it might be forced to pay a heavy price in the future if it fails to take action now. On the other hand, it cannot simply engage in warfare for years against the enemy’s capabilities just because they exist, and as far as I am aware, it is very difficult to prevent the enemy from arming its forces with conventional arms. Therefore, the method involves a system of checks and balances and deterrents, and of course, also operations wherever that is necessary.

“Above all, we must not allow Hezbollah to obtain any game-changing weapon systems. Are precision weapons, in large quantities, that are aimed at the State of Israel, considered a game-changer? Yes, I believe so. Are cross-border tunnels that penetrate into Israeli territory also a game-changer? In my opinion, yes they are.”

Manelis levels harsh criticism at the “defeatist and alarmist policy” that Israel has adopted over the years in relation to Hezbollah, according to him, “including in response to the terrorist attack in Megiddo, and the tent that Hezbollah erected in Israeli territory and that we were afraid to take down, as well as the incident at the IDF ‘Gladiola’ post in 2020, when the soldiers were issued with an explicit order not to fire at the attackers, but only to fire into the air.

“In 2019 too, at Avivim, when Hezbollah AT [anti-tank] squads attacked, there was no return fire against them.”

Now, Manelis believes things are changing.

Like Okinawa
Engineer Yehuda Kfir, a former intelligence officer who served in both the Gaza Strip and in Lebanon, points out the high degree of natural protection afforded by the tunnels in Lebanon compared with in Gaza.

“This involves cutting into limestone, dolomite and on occasion into basalt rock. It is very difficult for air-dropped bombs or artillery shells to penetrate such material,” says Kfir.

“The topography in Lebanon also has an impact on the warfare there. It enables the enemy to create long-range fire positions, that are well-protected, concealed, and camouflaged deep in the heart of the territory, with arrays from which they can launch missiles either via direct or indirect fire, laser target designation, and even launching Iranian-made drones.”

Kfir believes, stressing that this is purely an assessment, that “the model of the war, in the event of a ground maneuver in Lebanon, will be similar to the Battle of Okinawa in the Second World War, in which the Japanese used the topography and the ridge lines that were fortified with tunnels across the island. This was a defensive array that made it extremely difficult for the U.S. Army to conquer the island, and even after it was conquered, the U.S. military continued to suffer considerable losses.”

In addition, he thinks that one of the undeclared reasons for the extensive evacuation of the civilian population from Israel’s northern border is concern over the existence of additional attack tunnels that have yet to be revealed. Kfir raises doubts as to the IDF’s level of readiness to engage in underground warfare in Lebanon.

“Despite the experience that we have accumulated now in the Gaza Strip, this is a whole new ball game,” he reiterates. “At the Engineers’ Association, we set up a professional group that is intended to help the IDF with this. Some of the people are already part of the military setup in their reserve service capacity, people who deal with ground and terrain on a routine basis. The army does not ordinarily have access to so many people from this specific discipline.”

Originally published by Israel Hayom.


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