Belgrade News: A foreshadowing and foreboding trip

KAREN E. DAVIS Staff writer Jan 24, 2024 Updated Jan 24, 2024

It was August 2023. Belgrade resident and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana was standing on the border of northern Israel and Lebanon.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers were giving him a tour of a tiny piece of the massive underground tunnel system Hezbollah had dug south from Lebanon, under Israel’s northern border.

Hezbollah is an Iranian-backed militant group and is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, Daines explained.

(In a May 18, 2021 article, The Times of Israel estimated this tunnel system to be hundreds of kilometers long, and according to Tal Beeri, a retired IDF intelligence officer, “in Lebanon it’s more sophisticated” than those dug by Hamas to the south in Gaza. “We see the work Hamas has been doing, if that’s what’s been going on with the digging and building of tunnels, and well, in Lebanon it’s more sophisticated.”)

Lately, tunnels in the Middle East have been page one news, primarily the underground tunnel system in Gaza, that Hamas deliberately placed under neighborhoods, schools and hospitals.

After the Oct. 7 attack on numerous southern Israel kibbutzim, Israel’s response to bomb Hamas infrastructure has led to the leveling of much of Gaza and more than 25,000 deaths, according to Palestinian health authorities.

Hezbollah has done the same with Israel’s northern border, but these tunnels are specifically to facilitate an invasion of Israel, Daines told the Belgrade News.

Beeri added that Hezbollah excavated numerous kinds of tunnels, including explosive, tactical, and attack tunnels. Some tunnels are big enough for medium-sized trucks; others allow missiles to be fired from underground.

“A young IDF soldier took me, and we dropped about 80 feet down the tunnel, with primitive steps, all hand dug,” Daines continued. “They started digging this tunnel in 2014, and it was discovered a couple years ago. it was designed to faciliitate a full-scale invasion by Hezbollah into the north of Israel.”

A spray-pained slogan on one tunnel wall “was chilling,” Daines continued. “It said in Arabic, ‘On our Way To Jerusalem.’”

Daines’ August trip was just months in advance of the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed more than 1,200 people was more than 240 people taken hostage, and even this one small area the IDF toured with him uncovered a Hezbollah network of several tunnels.

The following day during the August trip found him in Jerusalem — meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “That meeting was one-on-one with me, the State Department and Netanyahu. The first topic we discussed was Iran’s backing of Hezbollah and Hamas, and the Houthis.’

“One thing worth noting,” Daines continued, “is that Oct. 7 is the worst attack ever on Israeli soil. And in 2016 Hamas had tunnels right on the border with Gaza.”

Intelligence on the Lebanese tunnel system suggests it to be more vast than Hamas’ tunnel system. Why? “Hezbollah has 10 times more missiles and rockets than Hamas,” he explained. Hezbollah has 100,000 missiles, maybe even 130,000. And Hezbollah has more fighters, five times more. Some 60,000 Hezbollah versus 14,000 Hamas,” Daines said.

“We’re very concerned about the escalation of this — Hamas on the western edge of Israel, and Hezbollah on the northern edge, all funded and directed by Iran. The goal of Hezbollah is to wipe Israel off the map. And I’m concerned about (President Joe) Biden’s weakness on the world stage concerning Iran. We are being taken advantage of by Iran,’ the Montana Republican continued.

“Our main concern about Iran is hoping they don’t escalate with Israel; Iran understands strength. The first president I ever voted for, as a student at MSU was Ronald Reagan. Reagan believed in peace through strength. The Iranians will exploit weakness.”

Daines circled back to Netanyahu: “We talked about the threat of Hamas and Hezbollah, and again, this was months before Oct. 7 attack. And the importance of a maximized pressure campaign on Iran. And then (in September) Biden’s $6 billion hostage exchange and lifting the oil embargo on them. I introduced a bill to (instead) use those funds to support Israel, but … I believe President Biden is a disaster as it relates to Iran.”

And the tunnels he toured on the Israeli border? Local villagers insisted “they heard digging in the night. That when it was quiet they could hear digging. I think the Israeli government knew what (Hezbollah) was doing and just let them keep digging for awhile.”

Daines concluded that “this literally made national news, with a local flavor. It’s a unique opportunity to bring some of these stories up, to more clearly understand what is going on in the Middle East.”