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Israel launches operation to thwart Hezbollah border tunnels

AP  |  Jerusalem 

The launched an operation on Tuesday to "expose and thwart" tunnels built by the militant group it says stretch from into

The tunnels are not operational, the military said, adding that its work to find and neutralise them was taking place inside Israeli territory.

But the operation could send tensions soaring between and its Iranian-backed foe, who have both been preoccupied with other conflicts since their last conflagration more than a decade ago.

"We see Hezbollah's activities as a flagrant and blatant violation of Israeli sovereignty" and of UN resolutions, said Lt. Col Jonathan Conricus, a

"This activity is another example of the negative effects of in the region." The military did not disclose how many tunnels snake into Israeli territory from or what tools it was using to deal with the threat, although it said the operation could last for weeks.

has spent years attempting to tackle a network of tunnels from the Strip into Israel and has used a variety of methods to destroy tunnels and prevent them from being rebuilt.

A Lebanese military told that Lebanese troops and military intelligence agents, along with UN peacekeepers deployed in southern Lebanon, were observing the border on Tuesday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, had no further details. Israel has been using earthmovers and other to build a massive wall along its northern border, saying the barrier is needed to protect civilians from attacks.

While the construction has prompted complaints from the Lebanese army, has not responded, an indication it could remain restrained amid the new operation.

Israel, meanwhile, gave no special orders to residents of northern Israel, signaling that it too was not expecting an immediate response from Hezbollah. The existence of the tunnels did not appear to have surprised Israel. Conricus said Hezbollah has been developing an offensive plan against Israel that would "shift the battleground into Israel."

The group would use firepower and ground units and "the surprise component of that plan was supposed to be tunnels that would allow infiltrators into Israel."

He added that Israel has investigated the possibility of underground Hezbollah tunnels since 2013 and launched a task force which has been working for the last two years searching for them.

He did not explain why the operation was launched now. Bulldozers and military vehicles were seen operating near the pastoral Israeli border town of on Tuesday.

Residents of the area told Israeli media they had been hearing digging noises for years and had reported their suspicions to the military. There was no immediate comment from Hezbollah and its Al-Manar TV did not make any mention of the Israeli operation.

Malene Jensen, for the UN force in known as UNIFIL, said the situation in the peacekeepers' "area of operation remains calm" and that they are in touch with all relevant parties to make sure calm and stability is maintained.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war in 2006 that ended in a stalemate. Israel's border with Lebanon has been relatively quiet in the years since, but Israel has continued to identify the Shiite militant group and its expanding weapons cache of tens of thousands of rockets as a major threat.

The Israeli operation began hours after Israeli held a snap trip to to meet US in which the two discussed "ways to halt together Iranian aggression in the region," including in Lebanon.

Israel has long voiced concern about Iran's growing military presence along its northern border, warning of an Iranian corridor that could assist in the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah.

Israel has generally refrained from engaging in Syria's civil war, though it has carried out scores of airstrikes against what Israel says were Iranian shipments of advanced weapons bound for Hezbollah.

The operation comes weeks after Netanyahu faced a major crisis in his governing coalition over the handling of a cease-fire with militants. Amid the crisis he took on the defense portfolio from his resigning and promised to pursue a hard line against Israel's enemies during what he described as a "complex" security situation.

Although its attention has been diverted to violent protests along its border with in recent months, Israel's main security concerns lie to the north, along the border with Lebanon.

Israeli officials have long warned the threat posed by Gaza's rulers pales in comparison to that of Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah a heavily-armed mini-army with valuable combat experience and an arsenal of some 150,000 rockets that can reach nearly every part of Israel.

Hezbollah meanwhile has also been distracted by the war in Syria, where it has fought fiercely alongside Bashar Assad's troops. With Syria's civil war winding down, Hezbollah is now free to re-establish itself back home in Lebanon and refocus on Israel.

Neither side appears interested quite yet in another full-fledged confrontation like the 2006 war, but any skirmish could spark an all-out conflict along the tense border.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Tue, December 04 2018. 18:20 IST