'They're just as scared as us': War brings fear and misery across Lebanon-Israel border

Civilians have lost homes and loved ones in months of cross-border strikes while threat of escalation looms daily

Lebanese family lives in classroom for five months

Lebanese family lives in classroom for five months
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Many of the thousands of civilians forced to flee southern Lebanon have no idea whether their homes are still standing.

Ali Sweid knows. The retired soldier's house in the village of Dhayra – just on the Lebanese edge of the frontier with Israel – was destroyed in October. Two of his children were injured in the Israeli strike and he lost almost everything he owned.

That was over five months ago, shortly after Iran-backed Hezbollah fired missiles into northern Israel in support of its ally Hamas, who launched a deadly attack into southern Israel on October 7, prompting massive Israeli retribution in Gaza.

Since then, the conflict has gradually intensified, with Israel striking deeper north into Lebanese territory, and Hezbollah using heavier and more long-range weaponry to bombard northern Israel.

More than 318 people have been killed in Israeli strikes on Lebanon so far – mostly Hezbollah fighters but also at least 54 civilians, according to an AFP tally. Israel says at least 10 soldiers and seven civilians have been killed by attacks launched from Lebanon. Hezbollah has accused the Israeli government of hiding the extent of its losses.

At least 90,000 people have been displaced from south Lebanon's border towns, according to International Organisation for Migration estimates. Across the border, 60,000 Israelis have been evacuated by the government from 43 northern communities, and many more outside the official evacuation zone have also left their towns.

US-led attempts to find a diplomatic settlement have produced no results so far, leaving residents on both sides of the border forced to contend with the death and destruction – and fearing that things could still yet get worse.

Retired soldier's home destroyed by Israeli shelling

Retired soldier's home destroyed by Israeli shelling

Civilians on the front line

Shortly after his house was destroyed, Mr Sweid moved his family down to a second house that they owned, a smaller one in lower Dhayra.

It was bombed, too. Much of Dhayra is now destroyed: homes, barns and agricultural fields.

Civilians in the south have been left at the mercy of the Israeli planes and drones that fly over Lebanese territory daily, bombarding the region with heavy munitions and toxic white phosphorus. It is difficult to know the extent of the destruction in south Lebanon, now rendered largely inaccessible to all but the few who have refused to leave their homes.

“Our village has become a front line for this conflict,” Mr Sweid told The National resentfully.

“Every day we say it’ll be over soon but this keeps dragging on. Now this war has entered its sixth month.”

Just over the border in Israel, Avichai Stern shares a similar sentiment.

He is the mayor of Kiryat Shmona, a town that sits in the string of northern Israeli communities that have been evacuated due to the fighting with Hezbollah.

“I have no problem with an average Lebanese person,” Mr Stern said as an emergency generator whirred in the background of his bunker office. “I imagine they’re just as scared as us.”

While speaking to The National, Mr Stern is interrupted by a call; the voice on the other end of the line informs him that a rocket has struck an area in the town.

Every time a building is hit in Kiryat Shmona, Mr Stern leaves the bunker to observe the damage, call the owners of the property, and organise security to guard the property.

It is just one of many municipal duties that keep him on the front line despite the danger posed by the town’s proximity to the Lebanese border, which has made it one of the most targeted towns in Israel.

The mayor’s own family evacuated Kiryat Shmona in October. Despite his responsibilities, he clearly shares the pain of fellow residents: He has yet to meet his newborn daughter, who was born after his family evacuated.

Despite initiating hostilities on October 8, Hezbollah has been careful to contain them by employing a strategy of proportional responses to Israeli strikes. But it has not shied away from using anti-tank missiles, against which Israel has no defence. Iron dome, the air defence system at the centre of Israel's home front security, cannot intercept them.

In January, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah boasted of the “security belt” his party has successfully imposed in northern Israel, forcing the evacuation of Israeli residents – despite the simultaneous inability of Lebanese to return to their own border towns.

“This is the first evacuation of the north since the beginning of Zionism,” he said triumphantly in his January speech.

Almost all residents of northern Israel’s border towns told The National they are hesitant to return so long as Hezbollah maintains a presence across the border.

Mr Nasrallah’s boast enrages Mayor Stern, whose traditional, right-wing constituents are deeply committed to defending Israel.

But even he has refused the idea of his residents returning unless Hezbollah is pushed away from the border.

The mayor has publicly stated he will block the entrance to his town with his own body if residents are told to return while Hezbollah remains a threat.

“Obviously residents want to come back,” Mr Stern said. “People have lives. A small hotel room with kids is a pressure cooker.”

Families long for normal life

Back in Lebanon, displaced families are also longing for normality as parents struggle to keep children entertained while living in cramped conditions.

Aseel, a young Lebanese girl living in a school-turned-displacement centre, said trips to the theatre with a local NGO are an opportunity to escape the suffocation of refugee life.

The eleven-and-a-half year old announced she was 13 years old to qualify for a trip for older kids. The next day she will revert to being eleven to qualify for the younger kids' excursion.

“I hate lying but it’s the only way to go on this field trip. I’ll pray for God to forgive me,” she said. “But I just have to, have to, have to get out of here!”

Aseel, her three siblings and her parents have been living in a displacement shelter in a converted classroom in Tyre since they fled their border village of Ramya five months ago.

Her mother registered her at a nearby school in Tyre, but Aseel and other refugee kids – many who came to the city with little more than the clothes on their backs – were teased mercilessly by other pupils. Now she receives her education online and rarely leaves the shelter unless there's an organised trip.

With little to do, time moves slowly. Aseel is surprised to hear her family have only been there for five months. She thought it was longer.

“Maybe because time has been so slow and every day is the same,” she suggested.

Her family, unable to work, has little money to spare for excursions outside the camp. They don’t know what’s become of their house in Ramya, and they don’t know when they might have the opportunity to find out.

“Meanwhile, we look and feel like bums. We’re so sick of this,” Aseel’s mother told The National, gesturing at her worn-out loungewear. She explained that a life of limbo, without work or school, had left most people in the centre feeling lethargic and depressed.

Shimrit, who lives in the northern Israeli kibbutz of Kfar Hanasi, has a daughter similar in age to Aseel.

Unlike Aseel, Shimrit’s family was lucky enough to return home – just south of the government evacuation zone – after voluntarily evacuating their town when the conflict erupted.

“We had to return – we feel like tourists anywhere else,” she said, although things are still far from normal. “Since I’ve been back I’ve been locking all the windows and doors every night.”

“It’s tough to explain to the kids. It affects them a lot. They ask a lot of questions, things like what’s going to happen if a terrorist gets inside?

“I tell them simply that we have a plan: we have put supplies and bedding in a part of the house that’s hard to find so we can shelter and hide.”

Worse to come?

Both Lebanese and Israeli civilians told The National that they know worse might be yet to come. Every day brings news of further escalation.

Last month, the war violently intruded upon the small Lebanese village of Majdal Zoun, about 6km away from the front line, when 5-year-old resident Amal Al Dorr was killed in an Israeli strike on their home.

Before then, the village had largely been spared from aerial bombardment, giving residents a deceptive sense of safety.

Amal and her family were gathered in her aunt’s front yard when the strike completely flattened the next-door building. When the smoke from the blast cleared, Amal lay bleeding.

She died a few hours later in hospital.

The little girl’s death was a violent reminder to residents of Majdal Zoun that no one is safe from the war.

Amal’s aunt, Manal Al Dorr, spoke with The National following her niece’s funeral in Tyre, a southern city mostly spared from the continuing violence.

The sound of Israeli shelling interrupted the ceremony.

“This happens every day,” Ms Al Dorr said, gesturing at the smoke billowing from the distant hills.

She explained that early on in the conflict, most of southern Lebanon’s residents, who are accustomed to living near a volatile border, faced it with their usual resolve.

But as the months drag on, that bravado has eroded.

“We were stronger before. We weren’t afraid,” she said.

While impatient to return home, residents on both sides of the border frequently declare their readiness to face off against the enemy if war does erupt.

“I have hope that we will triumph over Israel,” Ms Al Dorr told The National. “God willing. And we will go back to our homes.”

Mayor Stern has prepared himself for war: “Hezbollah is today part of the government of Lebanon, which means I am fighting all of Lebanon,” he said solemnly.

Updated: March 14, 2024, 6:04 PM