Operation Northern Shield
Israel has waged an escalating low intensity conflict against Hezbollah and its sponsor, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. This has mainly entailed sporadic air strikes against Hizballah and IRGC targets in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Israel reportedly believed the bases, guarded by Iran’s Quds Force, are a major part of Tehran’s effort to develop a so-called “land bridge” that would allow the Islamic Republic to easily move weapons and fighters from Iran through Syria and Iraq all the way to Lebanon. The named operation "Operation Northern Shield" is a subset of this larger campaign, which does not seem to have a separate name.
On 19 December 2018 Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon addresses the UN Security Council, describing the scenario Israel sought to forestall. " Suddenly, a force of 250 Hezbollah terrorists from the elite Radwan unit emerge from the end of a cross-border terror tunnel. This tunnel spans from Kfar Kela, Lebanon, directly into Metula, Israel. It was built to enable this large group of Hezbollah terrorists to move swiftly across the border underground. The tunnels are wide enough for Radwan terrorists to march two-by-two into Israel.
"Hezbollah’s Radwan forces will use this tunnel to invade Israel and take over Metula. Its terrorists will kill civilians – children and the elderly. Then, it will close Road Ninety, the highway connecting Metula with the rest of the Galilee, holding Metula under siege. But now, imagine this tragic scenario multiplied five times over. Imagine Hezbollah’s Radwan terrorists using five different tunnels to enter five other towns in Israel – Qiriat Shmona, Avivim, Zar’it, Adamit, Manara; killing innocent Israeli civilians; kidnapping them and taking over parts of the Galilee.
"Hezbollah calls this strategic and operational plan, “Conquering the Galilee.” It is a ground attack. But Hezbollah does not stop there. Hezbollah shoots thousands of rockets and missiles into northern Israel. It launches anti-tank missiles that could easily hit a bus full of children. It seizes control of northern Israel’s major roads and highways. It uses Shiite militias, together with the Radwan forces, to cross the Blue Line into Israel, overcome obstacles Israel has set in their way, and launch terror attacks against Israel by sea....
"Hezbollah’s severe violations of Resolution 1701 do not end with its terror tunnel project. Unfortunately, the terror tunnels reflect just a small part of Hezbollah’s illegal activities in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah is building military capabilities and infrastructure with the ultimate goal of using them to attack Israel....
"Hezbollah has placed at least three precision missile conversion sites directly beside Beirut’s international airport. Hezbollah is building its own precision missile production capabilities. Hezbollah is now holding over 100,000 rockets and missiles across Lebanon.....
"Iran is the lifeblood of Hezbollah – ideologically, financially, military, and even culturally. Based on piling evidence and reports, Iran is not only transferring game-changing weapons to Lebanon through the border with Syria. But, in flagrant violation of numerous Security Council resolutions, Iran is now transporting these weapons on commercial planes landing in Beirut’s international airport."
The Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Northern Shield on 04 December 2018 to expose and neutralize cross-border attack tunnels that Hezbollah dug from Lebanon into Israel. Just hours into the operation our troops exposed and neutralized a 600 foot Hezbollah attack tunnel, which began under a civilian building in southern Lebanon, was dug through solid rock, and extended into Israeli territory.
The goal was and remains to neutralize and destroy Hezbollah’s terror tunnels. The IDF has reported the existence, so far, of four terror tunnels in four separate geographical locations that begin in Lebanon and infiltrate Israel. Israel has informed its partners about this extensive operation and has also provided UNIFIL with full information about the tunnels.
During the 2006 Second Lebanon War the IDF was first exposed to Hezbollah’s extensive subterranean infrastructure. At the end of the war UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1701 was passed, forbidding armed groups other than the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL from going south of the Litani River and calling for the disarmament of all “armed groups.” Despite this, Hezbollah continued to arm itself and vastly develop their underground tunnel network in Southern Lebanon, preparing it for combat.
In 2012 Hezbollah began developing a plan against Israel. While monitoring Hezbollah’s planning and preparation, the IDF passed concerns that Hezbollah is digging near the Blue Line. In 2014 the IDF exposed Hamas terror tunnels infiltrating Israel from the Gaza Strip. Knowing that Hamas and Hezbollah often shared knowledge, Israel’s suspicion of a tunnel threat on the northern border is reinforced. Based on this, the IDF forms a technological intelligence taskforce to focus on the underground threat posed by Hezbollah. In 2015 the IDF expanded its defensive efforts in northern Israel. Advanced technological instruments were deployed in 2016 along the Blue Line with the aim of locating and exposing Hezbollah tunnels.
The attack tunnels from Lebanon constituted a threat to Israeli civilians as well as a violation of Israeli sovereignty, even before they were operational. Additionally, the tunnels served as proof of Hezbollah’s blatant violation of Israel’s sovereignty and UNSC Resolution 1701. These tunnels sent a clear message as to the true priorities of the terrorist organization Hezbollah. In doing this, Hezbollah has also put its goal of Israel’s destruction before the safety of Lebanese civilians.
A powerful bloc in Iraq's parliament called for the withdrawal of US troops from the country, following a series of air raids targeting Iran-backed Shia militias in the country that werec redited to Israel. The Fatah Coalition said on 26 August 2019 that it held the United States fully responsible for the alleged Israeli aggression, "which we consider to be a declaration of war on Iraq and its people". The coalition is a parliament bloc representing Iran-backed paramilitary militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Anger mounted in Iraq following a spate of mysterious air raids that have targeted military bases and a weapons depot suspected of belonging to Iran-backed militias. It added that US troops are no longer needed in Iraq. The coalition's statement came a day after a drone attack in the western Iraqi town of Qaim killed a commander with the Forces - the latest in attacks apparently conducted by Israel against the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.
Israeli also launched a similar attack against Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. Lebanon's president has said an Israeli drone attack on Beirut at the weekend was a "declaration of war" that justified a military response. "What happened is a declaration of war," Michel Aoun told Jan Kubis, the United Nations' special coordinator for Lebanon, in a meeting on 26 August 2019. "This allows us to resort to our right to defend our sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity," he added.
Israeli drones attacked a Palestinian base in eastern Lebanon near the border with Syria, Lebanon's state-run National News Agency reported. Three attacks which came minutes apart struck a base for a Syrian-backed group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), an ally of Hezbollah.
Israel’s attack on Lebanon in late August 2019, both on Hezbollah itself in southern Beirut and also on Palestinian positions in the east of the country, were an important indicator as to the dimension of Israel’s war against its regional foes. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech that Israel "must pay a price" and that "the need for a response is decided". Nasrallah said that Israel had breached the terms of the rules of engagement that had been in effect since the end of the last conflict in 2006. "The time when Israeli aircraft come and bombard parts of Lebanon is over."
On 01 September 2019 Israel and Hezbollah exchanged fire along the Lebanese border after a week of rising tensions. Israel's military said it fired into southern Lebanon on Sunday after a number of anti-tank missiles fired by Hezbollah targeted its army base and vehicles near the border. Hezbollah was responding to an earlier drone attack by Israel. The missiles hit several targets in Israel's border town of Avivim, the Israeli army said, adding it responded by shelling 100 targets inside Lebanon.
An airstrike in eastern Syria killed eight fighters from Iraq’s Iran-backed militia Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces), a monitoring group said 20 January 2020. The Lebanese news outlet Al-Mayadeen wrote that the raid was carried out by Israeli aircraft, citing sources in the field. It said the raid targeted a weapons transport. Israel hasn’t commented on the reports, rendering it impossible to verify the data. The US-led military coalition operating in Syria and Iraq denied carrying out the strike through a spokesman reached by AFP. Explosions were reported late Thursday at a base near the Iraqi-Syrian border believed to be occupied by Shiite militias, in what was a suspected airstrike. Per DeirEzzor24, a batch of weapons was targeted in the attack while on its way to Lebanese militia group Hezbollah. The shipment reportedly included ballistic missiles belonging to the Imam Ali Brigade, a Shiite militia controlled by the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces.
In a late night strikes on 00 February 2020 more than 20 servicemen were killed during a missile attack that Damascus blamed on Israel. Tel Aviv, which usually refrains from commenting on its military operations abroad, seemingly confirmed that the Israeli military was responsible for the strike. Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said days after the incident: "Foreign media reported this week that 23 Syrians and Iranians were killed there. Those are large numbers and we will do more and more."
Three Syrian soldiers were killed during a strike which occured on 13 February 2020. The Syrian government blamed the attack on Israel with PM Netanyahu refusing to comment on the incident. “Maybe it was the Belgian Air Force”, he said during an interview with Radio Haifa. The Israeli satellite analysis firm ImageSat Intl. released images saying they show the alleged aftermath of a recent airstrike on the airport in the Syrian capital Damascus. Pictures released by ImageSat, purportedly show that the strike completely destroyed a building used as headquarters and several warehouses, which were apparently used to store weapons. The stroke also reportedly partially damaged a shelter.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on 28 April 2020 confirmed that Israel was behind airstrikes against pro-Iranian forces in Syria, saying the military was working to drive Tehran out of the country. “We have moved from blocking Iran’s entrenchment in Syria to forcing it out of there, and we will not stop,” Bennett said in a statement. “We will not allow more strategic threats to grow just across our borders without taking action,” he said. “We will continue to take the fight to the enemy’s territory.”
On 01 May 2020 an Israeli strike targeted a Hezbollah weapons warehouse. The rare daylight strike sparked a massive explosion, according to reports from Syria. The war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the arms cache bombed Israel located outside Homs contained missiles and ammunition belonging to Hezbollah. Damascus denied the blast caused by Israel, saying it was ‘human error’. According to Syrian media, the attack triggered huge secondary explosions, apparently as the munitions inside the warehouse detonated. SANA reported that at least 10 people were wounded in the blasts.
The attack was the fifth strike by Israel against Iran-linked forces in Syria in the previous two weeks, coming less than 12 hours after Israeli attack helicopters struck Iran-backed forces in the Syrian Golan Heights. Syria accused Israeli helicopters of firing at least five missiles at targets on the Syrian Golan Heights, just across the border from Israel. “From the occupied Golan airspace, enemy Israeli helicopters attacked positions in the southern region with several missiles,” Syrian state news agency SANA said. SANA said the missile strike in the area of Quneitra caused “only material damage.”
The Syrian army said in a statement that Israel hit military barracks in Safira in the eastern Aleppo countryside on 04 May 2020. Earlier, state television had said a research center was targeted in the fifth such strikes in two weeks on suspected Iranian targets. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported another late Monday strike in the eastern Deir el-Zour province, which targeted positions of Iranian and Iran-backed fighters and killed, according to the report, 14 Iranian and Iraqi fighers. There was no immediate comment from Israel.
By July 2020 Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon did not have the maneuverability to respond to increasing Israeli attacks against them and are unlikely to carry out a large-scale retaliation. Israel has upped its attacks on Iranian targets in the region in recent months, striking Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria. But Iran and its proxies still seem to be following a strategy of non-escalation when it comes to Israel, said experts, pointing to Iran’s limited capabilities in Syria. A month after Israel last struck Iranian targets in Syria, fresh airstrikes attributed to Tel-Aviv targeted on July 20 several Iranian interests near the capital Damascus. The Israeli attacks came in two waves, destroying weapons and ammunition warehouses while killing five Iranian-backed non-Syrian and Syrian militiamen and wounding four others in south and southwest Damascus, according to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory. The Israeli strategy in Syria primarily seeks to target equipment and weapons, rather than military personnel and commanders, but the July attack appeared to have been different from a strategic standpoint. Seeing an opportunity to escalate strikes in Syria before the upcoming US elections, Israel has upped its war on Iran and its proxies in Syria.
The geographic targets Israel chose for this strike were similar to previous attacks, namely falling in the vicinity of Sayeda Zeynab, Qeswa, Mazzeh, Daraya, Quneitra regions, on a regular basis. Iran does not have the capability to move its equipment and fighters around freely, which means that its margin of maneuver is severely limited by the Russians, within the capital Damascus, which leaves it vulnerable to Israeli attacks. Russia has established the rules of engagement for Iran and Israel in Syria, turning a blind eye to Israeli strikes on Iranian interests in Syria while preventing any retaliation by Iran or Hezbollah.
Israel wants to stop Iran and Hezbollah from entrenching themselves in Syria. Iran is working on creating a line of confrontation similar to the one it created in Lebanon. Hezbollah also has several bases in Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and close to the Lebanese border that it will not abandon.
Syria’s escalation cannot be dissociated from the covert war taking place in Iran in the form of mysterious explosions and fires, the most lethal of which being the recent blast at the Natanz enrichment site. It is difficult for Iran and Hezbollah to retaliate at this time given complex conditions at home and around the region.
Satellite imagery of the aftermath of reported Israeli airstrikes on Iran-linked sites in Syria indicated the attacks targeted Tehran’s ability to bring in and store weapons in the country. According to the satellite imagery company ImageSat International, a strike on Monday night destroyed a command center and a warehouse at the Damascus International Airport and another two days later targeted an airstrip in the T-4 airbase in eastern Syria. Israel has long maintained that both airfields are used by Iran to bring munitions into Syria.
The Israel Defense Forces has not commented on the strikes, in accordance with a long-standing military policy of ambiguity around its alleged activities in Syria. According to ImageSat, the strikes “intended to tactically undermine shipments of advanced weapons systems from Iran.” In addition, the firm said it assessed that the attacks had a secondary goal. “The bombings send a strategic message to Tehran and the [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’] Quds Force, warning [against] their continued activity in Syria,” it said.
According to a summary report released by the Israel Defense Forces on 31 December 2020, Israeli soldiers were tasked with thwarting repeated infiltration attempts by Hizbullah troops. Lebanon-based, Iran-backed organization, also designated a terrorist group by Israel, the US and the EU, launched 10 known operations trying to enter Israeli territory, and placed explosive devices along patrol routes on the Israeli side of the Lebanese and Syrian borders on four occasions, according to the IDF’s report. In a rare occurrence, the end of year summary also noted that the Israel Air Force conducted 50 airstrikes on the Syrian front. The Israeli military said that most of the strikes targeted Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah or Iranian-backed military units in the war-ravaged country. In 2020, the IAF added four F-35 fifth-generation stealth combat aircraft to its arsenal, bringing the total to 24.
Israeli military aircraft launched an attack on eastern Syria 14 January 2020. As a result of the air strikes, 57 people were killed. The Syrian Human Rights Monitoring Center reported that the strikes were carried out along the border with Iraq in the cities of Deir al-Zur, Meyadin and Abu Kamal. A number of Shiite militias that are part of the Iraqi People's Mobilization Forces have redeployed to the border with Syria. The maneuver was carried out in coordination with Iraqi forces and the Western Operational Command of the Popular Mobilization Forces. The maneuver was carried out by the Kataib Hezbollah and Sayyid al-Shohad militias. The move followed the Israeli air attack near the city of Deir ez-Zor.
In February 2021, Syria’s army said the country’s air defences intercepted “Israeli aggression” over Damascus. The attacks killed at least nine pro-government fighters, a Britain-based war monitor said at the time. Israel had escalated in recent months a so-called “shadow war” against Iranian-linked targets inside Syria, according to Western intelligence sources, who say the raids are mainly aimed at research centres for weapons development and military convoys moving missiles from Lebanon to Syria.
Russia refuses the use of Syria as an arena for an Iranian-Israeli confrontation and it does not want to use Syrian land against Israel, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said 20 January 2021. “So, our dear Israeli colleagues, if you have facts that your state is facing threats from the Syrian territory, report the facts urgently and we will take every measure to neutralize the threat,” Lavrov added. Lavrov’s comments came after Israel, with US support, launched the heaviest raids on Iranian and Syrian sites in northeastern Syria. Observers and international affairs experts have been monitoring Russia’s work as a mediator between Syria and Israel in recent weeks. Sources have confirmed that Israeli army has been informing the Russians of airstrikes on Syria beforehand. Lavrov said that Russia refuses that Syrian territories be used as a battle zone to settle regional conflicts.
An Iranian cargo ship was lightly damaged in an apparent mine attack in the Red Sea 24 April 2021. Iran’s Armed Forces chief, Mohammad Bagheri, stopped short of directly blaming Israel for Saturday’s attack on an Iranian oil tanker off Syria, but has threatened the Jewish state with an unspecified response. A fire erupted aboard an Iranian oil tanker off the Syrian coast, after what the Syrian Arab news agency described as a suspected “attack by a drone from the direction of Lebanese waters.” Some reports said three people were killed, but others insisted there were no fatalities and the blaze was swiftly extinguished. The New York Times reported Israel had told the United States that it was behind the blast. That same month, Iran reported an attack on its Natanz uranium enrichment plan, for which it blamed Israel.
Syrian air defences intercepted an Israeli attack on several areas in northwest Syria, including the port city of Latakia along the Mediterranean coast, killing one person and wounding six, Syrian state media said 05 May 2021. The Israeli dawn attack also hit the town of Hifa, east of Latakia, and Masyaf in Hama province. State media had reported explosions near Latakia, which were heard by residents across the city and its outskirts. According to state media reports, a civilian plastics factory was hit in Latakia city, causing material damage. The Israeli military did not immediately comment. Israel has launched hundreds of attacks against what it calls Iran-linked military targets in Syria over the years but rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the Israeli attacks in Syria had already killed dozens of government and allied fighters in recent months.
It was the first Israeli attack on Syria since a missile fired by Damascus struck deep inside Israel two weeks ago. The missile landed in southern Israel on April 22, prompting Israel to respond with airstrikes on the missile launcher and other targets in Syria. Iran has been a key ally of al-Assad’s government throughout the civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and erupted after the brutal repression of anti-government protests. Al-Assad’s government has never publicly acknowledged there are Iranian forces operating on its behalf in Syria’s civil war.
Iran’s largest navy ship sank in early June 2021 after catching fire in the Gulf of Oman. Officials had not yet said if the sinking of the Kharg was an act of sabotage or an accident.
On 04 July 2021, the Liberian-flagged container ship CSAV Tyndall suffered an unexplained explosion on board while in the northern Indian Ocean, according to the US Maritime Administration. The crew was not hurt and the ship, possibly hit by a missile, was not badly damaged and continued on its journey. Israeli media identified the container ship as the CSAV Tyndall and initially said it was owned by Zodiac Maritime Ltd, a London-based international ship management company owned by Israeli tycoon Eyal Ofer. The company, however, issued a statement saying it no longer operated or owned the CSAV Tyndall.
On 26 July 2021, Syrian air defenses were activated to respond to an alleged Israeli airstrike near Aleppo. The airstrike targeted a research center in the area. The Russian Defense Ministry announced later in the week that Syrian air defenses intercepted seven out of the eight missiles allegedly fired by Israeli aircraft, with one missile hitting a research center in al-Safirah. On 28 July 2021 an Israeli airstrike targeted the Dabaa military airport in the Homs governorate of northwestern Syria. The airstrike was carried out from over Lebanon. Material damage was reported by Syrian media. A Hezbollah commander and commander in the Iranian-backed Liwa Fatemiyoun militia were both killed. Hezbollah-affiliated media reported that the Hezbollah commander Imad al-Amin, from Deir Kifa in southern Lebanon, was killed while “carrying out his jihad duty,” without providing further details. Iranian media announced that Ahmed Qureshi, a commander in the Liwa Fatemiyoun militia, died due to wounds he suffered while fighting in Syria.
Two crew members, a Briton and a Romanian, were killed when a petroleum products tanker managed by Israeli-owned Zodiac Maritime came under attack on 29 July 2021 off Oman’s coast. The assault represented the worst-known maritime violence so far in regional attacks on shipping since 2019. London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer's Zodiac Group, issued a statement saying the ship was the Liberian-flagged oil tanker Mercer Street and was Japanese owned. Zodiac said that the attack in the Arabian Sea was still being investigated. An unnamed senior Israeli official blamed Iran for the attack and said that the ship was hit with a drone, according to Israel’s Channel 13 TV. The attack on the Israeli ship came in response to the occupation’s attack on Dabaa airport, sources in the resistance axis told al Alam TV.
The US Navy rushed to the scene following the attack and was escorting the tanker to a safe harbor. US Navy personnel boarded the Israeli-managed ship that was allegedly attacked by Iranian forces earlier in the day, a Pentagon official told Al Arabiya. Members from the US Navy’s 5th Fleet responded to a distress call from a ship in international waters earlier in the day after being attacked. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan other US ships were accompanying the ship.
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