JERUSALEM (AP) — 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 tunnels it has dug into Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu said the council should "stand up for the truth" when it meets to discuss the tunnels Israel recently uncovered on the Lebanon border during "Operation Northern Shield." The Israeli military is engaged in the open-ended operation to identify and destroy the cross-border passageways, of which four have already been uncovered. Israel says they were built by Hezbollah militants to carry out attacks on Israeli civilians and try to conquer its northern tip.
"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."
Hezbollah, which has used such tunnels inside Lebanon before, has yet to comment.
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. The two sides are bitter enemies and fought an inconclusive monthlong war in 2006. In recent years, Hezbollah has been bogged down in fighting on behalf of Bashar Assad's regime in Syria. But with that civil war winding down, Israeli security officials fear it is now refocusing its attention on Israel.
Netanyahu said Hezbollah was currently using every third house in villages in southern Lebanon for hiding missiles or other military activity. He called their activity 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.
Netanyahu is demanding the U.N.'s peacekeeping force in Lebanon fulfil its mandate and take action against Hezbollah's violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions banning it from conducting military activity in southern Lebanon.
The U.N. force, UNIFIL, said Monday that two of the tunnels allegedly dug by Hezbollah cross the border in violation of the cease-fire agreement that ended Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah. The council was convening Wednesday at Israel's request.
Though it appeared the Lebanese army was unaware of the Hezbollah tunnel network, Netanyahu said they know about it now and were required to neutralize it 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. You should act in your own defense and roll them back. Fight Hezbollah for the future of Lebanon."
Lebanon's Foreign Ministry said it was concerned about the U.N. report about the tunnels crossing the border into Israel in violation of the 2006 cease-fire agreement. It said the Lebanese army has been asked to "intensify its activities" along the border. It also said the council should hold Israel accountable for its violations of Lebanon's air, land and sea space.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Isabel Debre in Metula, Israel contributed reporting.