The Israeli army has launched an operation to block tunnels being built by the Lebanese Hizbullah organisation before they come into use. Officials said Operation Northern Shield would last about six weeks and be limited to the Israeli side of the border.
In press conference on Tuesday night, the Israeli army showed video footage it said was taken inside one of the tunnels. Israel said the tunnel originated in a Lebanese civilian home, was at least 200m long and ran 40m under Israeli territory.
Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the tunnel was part of a wider effort by the Iran-backed Shia group to capture Galilee.
“Capturing parts of the Galilee by Hizbullah is a concrete threat,” he said. “The operation will continue until the outcome is achieved. Hizbullah knows that anyone who attacks Israel will pay a very heavy price”
Efforts to destroy cross-border tunnels built by Hizbullah were “not a isolated operation, but a wide and ongoing operation,” he said.
Israel declared an area around Metula, in the northern Galilee panhandle, a closed military zone and said it had “enhanced its presence and readiness” in the north and was “prepared for various scenarios”. The military warned Hizbullah and the Lebanese army, which went on high alert in response to the Israeli operation, to stay away from the tunnels, saying their lives were in danger.
Hizbullah accused Mr Netanyahu of launching the military operation as a distraction from his domestic problems after the Israeli police recommended on Sunday that he be indicted on new corruption charges.
A spokesman for Unifil, the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon, said the organisation had stepped up its border patrols and was in touch with all the relevant officials to ensure that the sides used Unifil's liaison mechanisms to maintain peace and stability. He said the situation in Unifil's area of operation was quiet.
The Israeli operation started a few hours after Mr Netanyahu, who a fortnight ago also assumed the role of defence minster, returned from Brussels where he had held an emergency meeting with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, which focused on the situation in Lebanon. Mr Netanyahu said the tunnels built by Hizbullah were a gross violation of Israeli sovereignty and of UN Resolution 1701, which ended the one-month 2006 Israel-Hizbullah war.
The prime minister's office said the two discussed ways to "work together to curb Iranian aggression in the region – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere".
US national security adviser John Bolton said Washington "strongly supports Israel's efforts to defend its sovereignty".
Israel believes that Hizbullah has 100,000 rockets aimed at Israel. The powerful militia has vowed to “conquer the Galilee” if another war breaks out with Israel.