Israeli efforts at countering subterranean incursions by disrupting the use of hostile groups’ tunnels is not a new phenomenon. Although what have been dubbed “terror tunnels” have only been regarded as a particularly serious threat to Israeli security since the summer of 2014, they actually originated for close to a decade beforehand. With roots in smuggling tunnels used to circumvent Israel’s various blockades over the coastal enclave, the Gaza Strip’s tunnel network has been used offensively since at least 2006 (Gilad Shalit’s kidnapping was facilitated by tunnels reaching into Israel). Similarly, Hezbollah has long maintained their own tunnel networks in southern Lebanon, having made extensive use of them during the Second Lebanon War of 2006. When headlines broke earlier last week that Hezbollah had been developing a network of tunnels leading from southern Lebanese territory into the Metula area of northern Israel, it is likely to have come as a surprise to many. Not that it should have, though.

As previously indicated, subterranean warfare is not a new innovation in the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Both Hezbollah, Hamas, and a number of other insurgent groups in the Gaza Strip have been utilizing offensive and logistics-oriented tunnels for years, but their discovery in northern Israel is somewhat novel. However, a number of considerations – which when taken into account – actually make this development far less of a surprise than was in fact the case. These include the manner in which Hezbollah has fought Israel since the 1980s, Metula’s geography, and Israel’s own domestic political situation.

Since its earliest days, Hezbollah has always fought asymmetrically, that is against an enemy with whom a significant disparity of power exists. While its counterinsurgency operations in Syria in aid of the Baathist government have resulted in Hezbollah facing near-peer and even inferior enemies, much of its history has been spent pitted against significantly stronger forces, most notably Israel (as well as America). To this end, its strategic outlook is greatly shaped and influenced by a necessity to target enemies’ vulnerabilities, rather than inviting a head-on confrontation. While these vulnerabilities may be physical, they are also often psychological. This is particularly well exemplified by a 1994 Hezbollah operation in southern Lebanon where its insurgents successfully infiltrated an Israeli Army compound and raised their own flag over it while a cameraman was filming them. This incident was arguably tactically insignificant, but not so strategically, and was very much felt by Israelis – both military and civilian – at the time. Perhaps, then, Hezbollah’s tunnels in the Metula area were never intended to facilitate a partial invasion and occupation of the Galilee, as some are claiming. Rather, a tactically limited, but strategically and psychologically oriented operation intended to damage Israeli morale and resolve is far more likely, i.e. Hezbollah commando teams infiltrating Metula, massacring civilians, and raising Iranian and Hezbollah flags over the town.

Metula’s geography also lends the town to being a target for such operations. While there are no shortage of Israeli towns and villages located in the immediate periphery of Lebanese border between Rosh Hanikra on the coast, and Maayan Baruch close to the Golan, Metula is part of a salient. In a military and strategic context, salients are defined as “An outward bulge in a line of military attack or defence”, or finger that projects into enemy territory. Apart from its immediate south, Metula is enveloped by Lebanon. Thus, rather than having to attack it frontally as the case would be with a town or village such as Misgav Am or Avivim, it would be easier for Hezbollah to attempt to seize and temporarily isolate Metula by spontaneously infiltrating it from its eastern and western flanks in a pincer-like movement. Presumably, such a plan would be facilitated by the use of tunnels leading from Lebanon to the edges of Metula, thus allowing Hezbollah’s fighters to enter Israeli territory.

It is also highly unlikely that the presence of these tunnels, and subsequent countermeasures being announced last week was either an accident, or result of Israeli intelligence suddenly becoming aware of them. While ostensibly to deceive Hezbollah, it has now emerged that Israel was aware of cross-border attack tunnels emanating from southern Lebanon for years, and deliberately withheld that information from the Israeli public. In fact, then Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon explicitly denied their existence when asked about them in 2015 and 2016, dismissing reports of digging sounds under the houses of concerned northern residents as “horses in a stable next door.” Immediately leading up to, and concurrently with last week’s announcement of these tunnels’ existence, though, was another major domestic political crisis, with the Israel Police recommending that Prime Minister Netanyahu be indicted on corruption charges for the third time this year. Although it is highly unlikely that Netanyahu will confect genuine security threats as an act of attempted self-preservation, it is not beyond the realm of imagination that he will seek to manipulate them for his own benefit. If anything can bury the story of a prime minister facing an imminent indictment, it is the threat of Hezbollah tunnelling into Israel in an attempt to raid a northern town such as Metula, and the probability of Netanyahu not being aware of this is almost zero — though there are certainly other factors at play as well.

We can therefore conclude that last week’s development that Hezbollah has been seeking to infiltrate Metula from Lebanon using a tunnel system was always somewhat inevitable, and not a surprise of any kind. Hezbollah’s modus operandi here is consistent with their preference of conducting asymmetric warfare against Israel, and Metula’s salient position and protrusion into Lebanese territory makes it an easier target to assault and hold than a village such as Misgav Am.