Inside Hezbollah’s ‘attack tunnel’ from Lebanon into Israel

The steps down are muddy and steep, leading to a small platform where electrical and communications systems are still mostly intact. An electric conveyor belt runs along one side of the tunnel, apparently used for transporting equipment. The circular imprints on the walls, according to the Israeli army, were made by a cylindrical drill used to carve away at the rock.

This describes the largest of three underground tunnels dug from Lebanon into Israel, built by members of the Shiite Lebanese Iran-allied Hezbollah movement.

The Israeli army believes Hezbollah intended to use the tunnels to carry out a surprise mass attack on Israeli civilians. Of the three tunnels dug by Hezbollah, this was the closest one to becoming operational, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli army spokesman, told reporters touring the tunnel on Monday.

The tunnel, dug from the village of Ramiyeh in southern Lebanon, is 80-metres deep and contains 20 flights of stairs.

It is cool and well-ventilated, although the Israeli army replaced the original ventilation system installed by Hezbollah, as it was destroyed when the army neutralized the tunnel.

Overall, the tunnel is considered far more sophisticated than those dug by the Palestinian group Hamas from Gaza into Israel and Egypt. It is all the more impressive given the rocky terrain of the area.

The Israeli army first announced the discovery of what it calls “attack tunnels” in December. Hezbollah-affiliated officials and media in Lebanon initially denied and even ridiculed the accusations. Israel says it has pumped sealants into the tunnels towards the Lebanese side, rendering them inoperable but also proving a point.

“We wanted to prove to the world that Hezbollah was digging tunnels,” Conricus said. “We pumped concrete from one side [of the tunnel] and it came up the other side – evidence.”

The United Nations peacekeeping mission known as UNIFIL, which monitors the Israeli-Lebanese border, has also confirmed their existence. It also says additional tunnels were dug close to the Blue Line but do not cross the border into northern Israel.

UNIFIL said the cross-border tunnels violate a UN Security Council resolution that ended a 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel. Sarit Zehavi, the founder of Israel’s research and education centre Alma, says the UN played an important role in ensuring that Israel’s “Operation Northern Shield” to neutralize the tunnels did not escalate into war.

But Zehavi also accused the UN of playing down Hezbollah’s role, noting that UNIFIL did not mention the group when it confirmed the tunnels’ existence. “This is a problem,” Zehavi said. “Why didn’t they mention Hezbollah?”

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in January claimed that some of the tunnels discovered were built over a decade ago, even before the 2006 war. He added that they formed only a small part of Hezbollah’s strategy in the event of war and warned it was wrong for Israel to assume their destruction would prevent attacks in future.

The discovery has once again shone a spotlight on Hezbollah’s intentions. Zehavi criticized broader opposition, particularly in Europe, to outlawing the entire Hezbollah movement as a terror organization. The UK recently took that step but Germany’s mainstream parties have opposed the move, calling for an EU-wide decision.

The European Union currently only designates Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization, while the US classifies the entire entity as such.

Daphne Richemond-Barak, an Israeli researcher and author of the book “Underground Warfare,” lamented a “lack of understanding in Europe” about Hezbollah’s nature.

“Yes, they have social elements, but there’s no distinction between the military wing,” she said, also highlighting that Hezbollah officials sit as ministers in the Lebanese government.

According to the Israeli army, Hezbollah has some 120,000 missiles, including short and mid-range rockets. It has repeatedly launched attacks from Lebanon against Israel in the past, often with the support of Iran.

Richemond-Barak said she views the use of tunnels as a game-changer in warfare, which she notes began in Syria’s Aleppo in 2014 and has been used in multiple countries since. She said Hezbollah’s tunnels bore a close resemblance to those built by North Korea, more so than those built by Hamas or Islamic State.

While Richemond-Barak acknowledged Israel’s success in exposing and destroying the tunnels, she was sceptical over whether sealing them would be enough to stop further attempts.

“I worry about what it means for the next ten years,” she said, warning that Israel could be surprised yet again by Hamas or Hezbollah, possibly even in the West Bank.

Residents of the area too are wary. Yossi Baranes, security officer of the Zar’it community said the residents are not entirely calm about the situation, despite the destruction of the tunnels.

In the community, which is home to 250 people, complaints began as long as 12 years ago about the sounds of digging. The army checked the complaints a number of times and told the residents they found nothing, Baranes said.

“They didn’t give us an explanation we could really accept,” he added. Residents had speculated that Hezbollah was behind the sounds.

With recent confirmation that the tunnels were real, “the residents are more aware of the magnitude of the attack that could happen,” he said.