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Hezbollah Tunnels Under a Galilee Farmer’s Apple Orchard

We sat in Weinberg’s pickup truck on a hill above a small road with a gate designed to keep civilians away from the border and safe from Hezbollah snipers. The only exceptions were the farmers whose land lay beyond the gate.

Hillel Kuttler
December 10, 2018
Ali Dia/AFP/Getty Images
A picture taken on Dec. 5, 2018, from a position near the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila shows members of the Israeli military on the other side of the border. Israel's army said it has discovered Hezbollah tunnels infiltrating its territory from Lebanon and launched an operation to destroy them.Ali Dia/AFP/Getty Images
Ali Dia/AFP/Getty Images
A picture taken on Dec. 5, 2018, from a position near the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila shows members of the Israeli military on the other side of the border. Israel's army said it has discovered Hezbollah tunnels infiltrating its territory from Lebanon and launched an operation to destroy them.Ali Dia/AFP/Getty Images

Levav Weinberg ordered me to direct my binoculars to a green tent along Israel’s border wall with Lebanon, and to yellow tractors 100 yards south. “That’s where one of the tunnels is,” he said. “They’re digging to determine the exact location and the exit point.”

The tunnel Weinberg, a farmer in the Galilee’s northernmost town of Metula, was speaking about was apparently built by Hezbollah, the rabidly anti-Israel terrorist organization controlling southern Lebanon. It begins as two tunnels under houses in the adjacent Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, infiltrates Israel, and merges into one tunnel that runs just beneath the orchard where Weinberg grows Pink Lady apples.

It represents “a game changer,” Weinberg said, because a wider tunnel further south, also originating in Kfar Kila, aimed to sever Metula (pop. 1,600) from the rest of Israel while enabling Hezbollah fighters to storm through the northern tunnel to massacre civilians and even conquer the town.

“It’s obvious,” an IDF officer in Metula, speaking on conditions of anonymity, said, confirming Weinberg’s assessment of Hezbollah’s strategy. “Missiles smuggled through the southern tunnel fired would keep us from reaching Metula.”

This was last Thursday, just 48 hours after Israelis awoke to news of the IDF’s announcement of discovering a tunnel. It would discover two more: one in Metula; one, closer to the coast, near the moshav of Zarit.

Weinberg and I were sitting in his pickup truck on a hill above a small road whose yellow gate was manned by IDF soldiers. The military had installed the gate in 2000 to keep Israeli civilians away from the border and, thereby, prevent them from being sitting ducks for Hezbollah snipers. The only exceptions were Weinberg and the other farmers whose land lay beyond the gate.

After Tuesday’s revelations, though, even they were denied access. Weinberg hoped he’d be allowed back that day. He telephoned an officer, requested again, listened carefully to the response, said “okay,” and put his phone away.

“The answer for today is no,” he said. By Sunday afternoon, Weinberg still hadn’t been readmitted to his fields.

His apples going untended were the least of it. Since Operation Northern Shield began, 500 of Weinberg’s trees were uprooted to clear space for the IDF’s earth-movers and tunnel-detection equipment to work.

We returned to the yellow gate. Massoud Amos stopped alongside Weinberg to review matters. He pointed right, to a white industrial complex with blue rooftops and showed us his business called Amos’s Garage where he fixed the agricultural vehicles of Metula’s farmers. When the Second Lebanon War broke out in 2006, it temporarily shut down his garage, then newly opened, for two months.

“It affects my livelihood,” Amos, a Jew born in Morocco, said. “I get lots of calls, but have to tell [customers] I can’t work. I have a customer’s tractor that I repaired–it was the clutch–but I can’t retrieve it for him. There’s nothing you can do. If this is what’s needed, what the IDF decides, I agree 100 percent. If it’s for the security of the State of Israel, then this is what’s necessary.”

Two middle-aged women approached with aluminum trays filled with Hanukkah treats: homemade sufganiyot, or donuts. The previous nights, they’d brought plentiful latkes and a tureen of tomato-rice soup to the soldiers standing watch at the gate.

“It’s the least we could do,” one woman said, before walking away to offer the soldiers the sufganiyot.

Amos was unconcerned about a financial hit. Weinberg seemed blasé, too. He’s generally upbeat: married, the dad of two young children and living in a dream home he built and moved into a year ago, just steps away from Lebanon. His father, Michael, died in his sleep a month earlier. The son of Holocaust survivors who settled in Metula, Michael worked the fields like a demon, plowing every bit of income into buying land of his own. Weinberg, 37, and other relatives now own 55 parcels in Metula, totaling 210 acres, where they grow apples, apricots, nectarines, and avocados.

Unlike the sandy, soft terrain near Gaza, where in the past two years the IDF uncovered 17 tunnels crossing into Israel, Metula’s rocky, unyielding earth, Weinberg explained, seemed to assure that Hezbollah couldn’t do the same.

“We, the civilians, never imagined it,” he said. As to those in nearby communities who claimed in recent years to hear underground digging, “I was among those people who said they were crazy.”

They weren’t. Another IDF official requesting anonymity said that Israel’s military knew about Hezbollah’s tunnel plans since 2015, and began erecting the concrete walls now visible along parts of the border. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah boasted publicly of plans to seize part of the Galilee, but since the IDF’s announcement, “we haven’t heard anything” from him, the official said.

“Maybe he’s shocked that we uncovered it,” he added.

The official contradicted reports that the IDF will merely block the tunnels’ path into Israel, rather than risk charges of violating Lebanese sovereignty by attacking them across the border.

Maj.-Gen. Stefano Del Col, head of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, visited Metula on Thursday and was informed by IDF officials, the officer said, that if UNIFIL doesn’t take action, “we’ll do what’s needed on both the Israeli side and the Lebanese side. We’ll destroy them.”

Weinberg and I picked up his son from daycare. We continued to the house of his mother, Orna, who was watching Weinberg’s daughter.

“Listen to this,” she said. “My friend called. Her daughter gave birth to a son in Tzfat. She named him Levav. The woman in the bed next to her gave birth to a son. She called him Levav, too. They heard your name on TV.”

I left to visit Metula’s mayor, David Azulay. His office’s aerial map shows approximately ten light-blue circles, representing the IDF’s just-declared closed military zones during the operation. The zones encompass 40 percent of Metula’s area, but “we live as we do routinely, as normal,” Azulay said. “We’re trying to project an air of business as usual.”

Indeed, the Canada Centre activity complex buzzed with swimmers, ice skaters, and game-players. Tryouts for Israel’s national hockey team were held as scheduled – and Weinberg, the new chairman of the Israel Ice Hockey Federation, spoke to the teens before lunch.

Other tourist business, nearly all of it on HaRishonim Street, showed gains and losses. Restaurants filled with journalists and army personnel. B&Bs and hotels suffered cancellations during an expected busy week, with schools across Israel off for Hanukkah.

A massacre was averted, but the challenge remains: How can Metula be kept safe, wedged in, like nowhere else in Israel, on three sides by another country?

“That’s for tomorrow,” Azulay said. “I’m dealing with the challenges of today.”

Hillel Kuttler, a writer and editor, can be reached at [email protected].