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Israel finds last tunnel on Lebanese border, confirms strike in Syria

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Image: Hezbollah fighters walk near a tank in western Qalamoun, Syria
Hezbollah fighters walk near a tank in western Qalamoun, Syria on Aug. 23, 2017. -
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Omar Sanadiki
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JERUSALEM — Israeli troops discovered the sixth and final tunnel dug by Hezbollah militants for cross-border attacks, the military announced Sunday, saying it was wrapping up its operation along the Lebanese border.

Also on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed an Israeli strike deep in Syria a day-and-a-half ago.

An Israeli soldier operates a pulley at an entry point made by the army to intercept a tunnel connecting Lebanon and Israel on December 19.
An Israeli soldier operates a pulley at an entry point made by the army to intercept a tunnel connecting Lebanon and Israel on December 19.Jack Guez

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the final tunnel was the largest one discovered so far, running more than 2,000 from under a Lebanese home and deep into Israeli territory. Israel launched the "Operation Northern Shield" early last month to detect and destroy what it called a vast network of Hezbollah tunnels aimed for militants to sneak across the border and carry out attacks.

Conricus said the latest tunnel originated from the Lebanese border town of Ramyeh. He said it was 180 feet deep and ran 2625 feet inside Lebanese territory and also "dozens" of meters into Israel. It included stairs, a rail system and a wide a passageway that allowed for the movement of equipment and a large number of forces.

The tunnel would be destroyed in the coming days, Conricus said, adding that while more tunnels still existed on the Lebanese side of the border, this effectively marked the end of the ambitious military operation.

"We have achieved the goal that we set out to achieve a month and a half ago," he said. "According to our intelligence, there are no longer any cross-border attack tunnels into Israel."

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Israel and the United Nations say the tunnels violate a cease-fire resolution that ended a devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. Conricus says the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as UNIFIL, had been updated on the latest development.

In the wake of its discoveries, Israel has asked the international community to impose tough sanctions on Hezbollah and begin to act against its state-within-a-state operation in Lebanon.

The military said its forces would stay deployed along the border area to monitor for any other possible underground activity, and said it holds the Lebanese government responsible for everything happening in its territory.

The powerful Shiite militant Hezbollah, which acts independently in Lebanon, has yet to comment on the Israeli discoveries.

Israel has long called for a crackdown on the Iran-backed Hezbollah, a heavily armed mini-army that is believed to possess an arsenal of some 150,000 rockets that can reach nearly all of Israel. In recent years, Hezbollah has been bogged down in fighting in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. But with that civil war winding down, Israeli security officials fear Hezbollah is refocusing its attention on Israel.

Hezbollah fighters walk near a tank in western Qalamoun, Syria on Aug. 23, 2017.
Hezbollah fighters walk near a tank in western Qalamoun, Syria on Aug. 23, 2017.Omar Sanadiki

News of the operation's conclusion comes in the final week of Israel's outgoing military chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot's four-year tenure. The latest discovery, coupled with a weekend strike against suspected Iranian and Hezbollah sites near the Damascus International Airport that is attributed to Israel, was perceived in Israeli media as Eisenkot's "parting shot" as he leaved office.

Netanyahu announced the strikes in during a cabinet meeting.

"Only in the last 36 hours did the air force attack Iranian warehouses with Iranian weapons at Damascus International Airport," he said in a statement. "The backlog of recent attacks proves that we are more determined than ever to act against Iran in Syria, just as we promised."

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Israeli officials have only recently openly admitted to striking targets in Syria.

Eisenkot gave a series on interviews over the weekend summarizing his term and focusing on shifting the Israeli military's attention toward Iran directly instead of just engaging its lesser proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. In a newspaper interview published on Friday Eisenkot said that Israel "has struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit" as part of a shadow showdown with Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force.

Eisenkot also revealed that the government approved his shift in strategy in January 2017, stepping up air strikes in Syria. In 2018 alone, he said Israel's air force dropped 2,000 bombs in Syria.