Kafr Kila, Lebanon – Across the border wall that divides the village of Kafr Kila in south Lebanon from Israel, the sound of Israeli excavations is disturbing a relative calm that has endured for 12 years.
On December 4, Israel decided to take on Hezbollah in Lebanon and began “Operation Northern Shield”. It started digging along several points on the Lebanon-Israel border to locate and destroy what it said were tunnels dug by Hezbollah into Israel.
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The Israeli army alleges that the tunnels violate the country’s sovereignty and are big enough – some two metres in height and width – for armed men to travel through.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the tunnels pose a grave danger to the country, while an Israeli official has called them a conspiracy by Hezbollah to “conquer Galilee”, its northern territory.
Hezbollah, in line with normal practice, has not responded.
The Lebanese living along the border in the south of the country, witnesses to Israel’s invasion of the 1980s and the 34-day war in 2006, say they are not sure what the latest Israeli manoeuvre means.
They hope, just as other skirmishes over the chopping down of trees or meandering sheep, this too shall pass.
At first, the people of Kafr Kila seem indifferent. The cars moving freely along the highway opposite the border, and the full shops, give an impression of business as usual.
But the calm hangs heavily. Residents acknowledge that underneath the routine tensions, serious trouble could be brewing this time.
Mohamad Fakir runs a shop barely 200 metres from the Kafr Kila frontline, facing a forward post of the Israeli army. It would be directly under their line of fire if there were to be an exchange of artillery.
“I saw the Israelis digging even today,” he said. “What do they want from us now?”
Fakir was born in Kafr Kila and has lived here his entire life. He lived through Israel’s “Operation Litani” in 1978 and the invasion of South Lebanon of 1982. He does not think the current incident will lead to war yet. But knowing how quickly events get out of hand here, he is worried.
The first of the four tunnels disclosed by Israel allegedly begins in Kafr Kila. Fakir fears that if the latest incident turns into a major conflict, Kafr Kila may be the starting point.
The existence of the tunnels has been confirmed by the United Nations peacekeeping force, UNIFIL. Fakir, however, believes that there are political motivations behind Netanyahu’s unveiling of the tunnels.
“There are no tunnels,” he said, “Even their own people do not believe it.”
Thanassis Cambanis, the author of a book on Hezbollah and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, also questioned the timing of Israel’s expose.
“The carefully orchestrated hoopla seems clearly targeted at Israeli public opinion for domestic political reasons,” Cambanis said.
Just two days before Netanyahu announced the tunnel operation, Israeli police had recommended he be indicted on bribery, fraud and other charges.
Netanyahu is embroiled in three corruption cases, tarnishing his image in advance of an election year. His critics say that taking on Hezbollah is a political tactic.
Not far from Fakir’s shop, Ghassan Eid was busy at his coffee and snack kiosk. He lives three minutes walk from the Kafr Kila border.
Ghassan said that he supported Hezbollah even if it did build the tunnels as alleged, saying that Israel violates the sovereignty of Lebanese airspace regularly.
“The Israelis fly over our heads every day,” he said. “So what if Hezbollah has built tunnels under them?”
Lebanon’s caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said Israel had violated the country’s sovereignty in this way 1,400 times so far this year.
“They scare us every day, so they ought to know how it feels,” Ghassan said.
In the middle of the conversation, Ghassan took out the cross he was wearing and, pointing to it, said, “I am not a Muslim, not a Shia, but I still support Hezbollah”.
Tunnels as a tactic
The Israeli invasion in the 1980s was backed by a Christian militia, the South Lebanon Army. However, the Christian community in Lebanon is divided – Bassil, the foreign minister, leads the Christian-dominated Free Patriotic Movement, which is allied to Hezbollah.
Ghassan proudly talks of how Hezbollah resisted the Israelis after 1982, and finally saw them leave. He reminisces fondly about how, in the 2006 war, Hezbollah fighters would use tunnels as a weapon against the invading Israeli forces.
“The villages were riddled with tunnels,” he said. “Hezbollah emerged from under the earth and attacked the Israeli tanks, pushing them out of our country!”
Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, has said previously that any future conflict with Israel would be fought in Israel and not just Lebanon. The comments imply that Hezbollah will employ all tactics, including tunnels, to extend their ability to attack Israeli territory.
Whatever his motivation, Netanyahu may have succeeded in embarrassing UNIFIL. According to UN Resolution 1701, UNIFIL is tasked with keeping the area between Litani River and the border “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons (other) than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL”.
Israel alleges that the tunnels are dug from the basements of private homes on the Lebanese side of the border.
After the Israeli operation began, UNIFIL released a statement confirming the four tunnels’ existence and saying that two crossed the “blue line” which demarcates the border between Lebanon and Israel.
“We cannot inspect private properties,” Andrea Tenanti, UNIFIL’s spokesperson said.
“According to our mandate we can only appeal to the Lebanese armed forces if there is a complaint or evidence,” Tenanti added.
Israel regularly complains that UNIFIL cannot prevent Hezbollah’s military operations in Lebanon’s far south, and should be replaced by a peacekeeping force with more powers.
“That’s a self-defeating gambit,” Cambanis said. “UNIFIL has the minimal authority that the international community, Lebanon and Israel were able to agree on. There won’t be an international force dispatched to Lebanon to actively disarm Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah’s tunnels proved effective against Israel before and served its ally Bashar al-Assad as well in the Syrian war. If Hezbollah is digging tunnels into Israel, regional observers say it would not be a surprise.
Fakir and Ghassan are, yet again, watching their neighbour with anxiety. They do not want escalation, but if it comes, they say they will stand by Hezbollah, tunnels and all.