BEIRUT: The Lebanese Army said Sunday that it had boosted its patrol units near the border with Israel in coordination with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in south Lebanon.
Also Sunday, the state-run National News Agency reported that the Israeli army withdrew its excavator from the area facing Mais al-Jabal, after it reportedly crossed the technical fence earlier in the day.
In a statement issued Sunday evening, the Lebanese Army said it had deployed units along the border and was taking measures to cooperate with UNIFIL. “[The Army] is ready to confront any emergency,” the statement said. However, an Army source told The Daily Star that the situation in the area was calm.
The NNA reported Saturday that Israeli forces had shot into the air near the Israeli-Lebanese border after seeing a routine patrol by the Lebanese Army Intelligence Branch east of the Marjayoun town of Mais al-Jabal.
The Army source said they could not confirm or deny the report.
The Israeli officers said they fired after being surprised by an Army patrol that they claimed had been obscured by a thick fog.
But Israeli military spokesperson Avichay Adraee tweeted later Saturday that Israeli forces working in the excavation area had detected three people who he claimed were “apparently Hezbollah personnel” attempting to come near the excavation works, “taking advantage of the [foggy] weather.”
Adraee added that the forces “shot at them, leading them to flee.”
Hezbollah has not commented on any of Israel’s claims since the Jewish state last week announced the beginning of Operation Northern Shield after claiming to have detected tunnels the party built crossing into the country’s north.
Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said over the weekend that the party’s arms capability has deterred Israel from aggressions against Lebanon as “there is not a point in Israel not exposed to Hezbollah rockets.”
“Ever since 2006, Israel has been deterred by Hezbollah’s abilities,” Qassem told Iranian Alvefagh news website, claiming that all of Israel, “even Tel Aviv,” could be reached by Hezbollah’s rockets.
Qassem’s comments came as Adraee claimed Saturday that Israel had found another tunnel that Hezbollah had built, though he did not specify its location.
Adraee warned anyone who might consider entering “from the Lebanese side” that Israel had placed explosives in the tunnel.
UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti Saturday said that “a team from UNIFIL will visit the site at the soonest possibility to check the facts,” according to the NNA.
Israel’s military chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot met Sunday with UNIFIL’s commander, Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, telling him the alleged tunnels are a “blatant violation” of a U.N. cease-fire resolution that ended the 2006 War between Israel and Hezbollah. Eisenkot expressed the importance of the peacekeepers in enforcing the resolution and working to neutralize the tunnels on the Lebanese side of the border.
The Israeli announcement of the discovery of a second tunnel was followed Sunday by excavations near the technical fence east of Mais al-Jabal.
The NNA reported that about 25 Israeli soldiers, along with an excavator, crossed the technical fence in the Kroom al-Sharaki area and started excavations 20 meters away from the Blue Line.
Tenenti said later Sunday that the situation was calm in the excavation area and there had not been any violations of the Blue Line, the NNA reported.
“UNIFIL personnel are observing the situation to maintain stability. They are working in coordination with the Lebanese Army and contacting all parties to ensure stability,” he noted.
Israeli personnel Saturday had crossed the technical fence separating Israel and Lebanon near Mais al-Jabal, but didn’t cross the Blue Line.
They were reportedly searching for two machine guns they had lost in the area, prompting the Lebanese Army to conduct its own patrols.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a tweet Sunday that the operation to locate and block the tunnels continued despite the weather conditions.
That followed a Saturday phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, initiated by Netanyahu, where Putin “stressed the importance of ensuring stability in the region,” a Kremlin statement said.
Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin said Saturday that Lebanon’s stability was threatened more by the country’s domestic political situation than by Israel’s recent operations.
Zasypkin told local radio station Voice of Lebanon (93.3) that the Israeli operation was “a tactic aimed at propaganda” by Israel and not an actual security threat.
“If it was truly serious, it would have been discussed in closed rooms and through the [United Nations] Security Council. And there cannot be claims of violating [UNSC] Resolution 1701 without having all the data from UNIFIL,” the station quoted Zasypkin as saying, referring to Israeli claims that the alleged Hezbollah tunnels violate the resolution that ended the 2006 Israeli War on Lebanon.
Israel announced Thursday that it had expanded its operations to three areas along its border with Lebanon where it says it discovered additional Hezbollah “attack tunnels” and that it was aware of more.
UNIFIL Thursday confirmed the presence of a tunnel near the Blue Line following its own investigation, but did not provide further details.