Israeli soldiers stand around the opening of a hole that leads to a tunnel that the army says crosses from Lebanon to Israel, near Metula, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. Israel's prime minister Wednesday called on the U.N. Security Council to condemn "wanton acts of aggression" by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, designate it a terrorist organization and heighten sanctions on it over attack tunnels it has dug into Israel. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Israel urges UN to condemn Hezbollah over tunnels

December 19, 2018 - 2:22 pm

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Wednesday urged a special session of the U.N. Security Council to condemn the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and designate it a terrorist organization following the discovery of cross-border tunnels stretching into Israel.

Following a stormy session, the council took no action on the Israeli request, though several members sided with Israel and expressed concerns over Hezbollah's violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution that ended a 2006 war between the bitter enemies.

Early this month, Israel announced the discovery of what it says is a network of cross-border Hezbollah attack tunnels and launched an open-ended military operation to destroy them. It so far has exposed four tunnels that it says were to be used to infiltrate and attack Israeli towns and abduct Israeli civilians.

Ahead of Wednesday's debate, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the council to condemn Hezbollah.

"This is not merely an act of aggression. This is an act of war," Netanyahu said. "The people of Lebanon have to understand that Hezbollah is putting them in jeopardy and we expect Lebanon to take action against this."

At the United Nations, Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon showed an aerial photograph of what Israel called a "private compound" near the border that concealed a tunnel. He also presented an aerial photo showing what he said were weapons-storage sites concealed in a border village.

He said that Israel had given the peacekeeping mission UNIFIL "precise information" about the tunnels that was shared with the Lebanese army. He accused the Lebanese army of then relaying the information to Hezbollah, allowing it to try to conceal the tunnels.

"Lebanese army officials are working for Hezbollah, while UNIFIL is not working to fulfill its mandate in the region in the necessary manner," Danon said.

The U.N.'s peacekeeping chief, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, said UNIFIL had confirmed four tunnels, including two that cross the frontier into Israel.

Calling them a "serious violation" of the 2006 cease-fire resolution, Lacroix said UNIFIL is "acting judiciously" to complete its investigation and to work with both sides to disable all tunnels that cross the border.

"This is a matter of serious concern," he said.

Lebanon's ambassador, Amal Mudallali, said her country took the matter seriously and remains committed to the cease-fire resolution.

"This commitment is not rhetoric, and these are not mere words, because this commitment is in the interest of my country and my people," she said, adding that the Lebanese army is "deployed heavily" in the south to make sure the cease-fire is honored.

But she also accused Israel of repeatedly violating the resolution by allowing its air force to routinely fly through Lebanese skies.

"If we were to call for a Security Council meeting, every time Israel had violated Lebanon's sovereignty since 2006," she said, "you will be in a 24/7 shift to address them."

Hezbollah, a powerful organization that acts independently in Lebanon, has yet to comment on the Israeli discovery.

Several council members joined Israel in condemning the tunnels. Sweden said Hezbollah's military capabilities pose a "clear risk" to regional stability. The Netherlands strongly condemned the tunnel activities as a "flagrant violation" of Israeli sovereignty and international law.

But the council took no further action and did not schedule a vote.

Israel has long called for a crackdown on the Iranian-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 on behalf of Bashar Assad's government in Syria. But with that civil war winding down, Israeli security officials fear it is now refocusing its attention on Israel.

Though it appeared the Lebanese army was unaware of the Hezbollah tunnels, Netanyahu said they know about it now and must neutralize them for their own country's sake. Israel holds the Lebanese government responsible for the actions of Hezbollah, which enjoys significant political power in Lebanon.

"The fact that the Lebanese army is doing nothing means that they are either unable or unwilling or both to do anything about this. But it doesn't absolve Lebanon's culpability," he said. "My message is: Hezbollah is putting you in great jeopardy."

Israel also accuses Hezbollah of using private homes to store weapons or other military activity. Netanyahu called these actions a "double war crime" since it threatened to harm Israeli civilians and put Lebanese civilians in danger as well.

On Wednesday, the Israeli military escorted reporters along the Israel-Lebanon border to the site of one of the tunnels found in recent weeks near the town of Metula. Heavy mist and rain nearly obscured the Lebanese villas perched on the mountains overlooking Israeli army bulldozers and tractors trundling through the mud.

Hezbollah, Lebanese and Palestinian flags fluttered on the opposite side of the border as Israeli soldiers lowered cameras 26 meters (85 feet) into the mouth of a rock-hewn tunnel they said was the first exposed in "Operation Northern Shield" emanating from the Lebanese village of Kafr Kela just a few hundred meters (yards) away.

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Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Isabel DeBre in Metula, Israel, contributed reporting.

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