Israel field
© AP Photo / Mohammed Zaatari
On 4 December, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) annoucned the beginning of Operation Northern Shield to destroy cross-border tunnels that the Lebanon-based Hezbollah movement had dug.

Former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon admitted that the country's officials had been hiding knowledge of the existence of Hezbollah's underground tunnels for years before the IDF announced they were launching a military operation.

"We did it to mislead the other side. My comments two years ago that there are no tunnels in the north was a lie in order to preserve the security of the state. I didn't want Hezbollah to know that we knew", he told Army Radio on Thursday.

A handful of former military officials and opposition politicians have criticised the way in which the military's op to eliminiate the Hezbollah subterranean threat was revealed to the public.

Many accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of presenting the army's efforts in an overly dramatic manner, albeit they acknowledged the operation's significance to the security of the Jewish state.

"There's an exaggeration in the way it was presented, and I hope that doesn't hurt us. But the decision [to do it] was professionally made and came from within the military", Ya'alon said.

For years, residents of northern Israel reported hearing the sounds of excavation and underground construction, but were repeatedly dismissed by the Israel Defence Forces.

During his tenure as Israel's defence minister, Ya'alon was asked at least twice, in 2015 and 2016, about the Hezbollah cross-border attack tunnels, entering Israeli territory from Lebanon, and in both cases he denied their existence.

Over the past few years, IDF has also been asked about the underground threat, and they either refused to comment, or denied that the army knew anything.

In January 2015, Ya'alon flatly rejected the complaint from northern residents that they'd heard tunneling and reassured a group of high school students in the city of Kiryat Shmona that the sounds were just "horses in a stable next door".

A year later, Ya'alon told students preparing to enlist in the army that "in the north, we haven't discovered a single tunnel" and that:

"Hezbollah doesn't even have a good reason to even dig tunnels in the north" because the Lebanese movement could potentially find other ways to infiltrate Israel.

In the Army Radio interview, Ya'alon acknowledged that he had lied to "calm" residents of the north, at the same time claiming that most of the claims from residents were incorrect at the time.

"We took it seriously. We looked and we didn't find anything. Even today, I will continue to calm down northern residents. None of the tunnels reach any of the communities where people said they'd heard [tunneling], nor to any home", he said.

The IDF announced on 4 December the launch of Operation Northern Shield to destroy the Hezbollah transboundary tunnels to secretly transfer its militants to Israel in any potential future conflict.

Speaking to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Netanyahu has urged international criticism of Hezbollah and more sanctions against the group, declaring the tunnels a "flagrant violation of Israeli sovereignty".

The Lebanese Army also issued a statement calling Israel's accusations "mere allegations," according to the country's state-run National News Agency (NNA).