Disparate south Lebanon border towns prepare for possible war with Israel

Residents of some villages say they have been caught in the crossfire between Hezbollah and Israel in what could become second front of Israel-Gaza war

Retired soldier's home destroyed by Israeli shelling

Retired soldier's home destroyed by Israeli shelling
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Ali Sweid spent much of his life savings, about $150,000, on building a house for himself and his family in the southern Lebanese village of Dhayra, less than 100 metres from the border with Israel.

The two-storey villa was destroyed in an Israeli attack on the town on Wednesday — collateral damage in the daily tit-for-tat escalations between Israel and its nemesis, the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group that controls south Lebanon.

“This land was my inheritance and so we built on it,” Mr Sweid said. “We thought: ‘We’re a peaceful people. Nothing will happen’.”

Rubble crunched underfoot as the Mr Sweid showed The National the extent of the damage. He grumbled to himself and picked up a bag of bread, coated in a thick layer of soot, from the floor of his incinerated kitchen.

“Look at this!” he said bitterly, waving the bread. “We were having breakfast when the shelling started. Why would they hit here? We have nothing to do with this conflict.”

Mr Sweid’s 40-year-old daughter was badly injured when the stairs collapsed on her as he attempted to shepherd her to the garage, the safest place in the house. His son Mostafa suffered from smoke inhalation when he tried to put out the fire in the kitchen.

Red Cross ambulances were unable to reach them amid the shelling, Mr Sweid said.

“I called my other son, who lives in the village below,” Mr Sweid said. “He threw himself in his car, drove here, grabbed his siblings, and drove them to the hospital — all under the shelling.”

Dhayra caught in the crossfire

Residents of Dhayra, a peaceful, little-known Bedouin town populated by the Aramshe tribe, have been caught in the crossfire between Hezbollah and Israel and are fearful the clashes could open a second front for the Gaza-Israel war.

Hezbollah is a long-time ally of Hamas, which controls the blockaded Gaza Strip.

The Lebanese group often provides cover for Palestinian militants to conduct border operations against Israel from Lebanon.

“This country is controlled by gangs and militias,” Mr Sweid grumbled. “If there was a state this wouldn’t happen [to our homes].”

Dhayra was split into two in 1948, when the state of Israel was created following the mass exodus of over 700,000 Palestinians from their land.

The part of the town that now lies in northern Israel is now called Arab Al Aramshe and its citizens were given Israeli nationality. The Aramshe tribe is divided by the border – closed owing to Lebanon and Israel’s status as enemy countries.

Earlier this week, Hezbollah fired at an Israeli military position near Arab Al Aramshe, killing at least one Israeli soldier and injuring seven. Hezbollah said the attack was a retaliation for the deaths of three members in air strikes Israel carried out on Monday after members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) militant group crossed into Israel from Dhayra and launched mortars.

Mr Sweid's home was among those hit in the Israeli response on Dhayra and surrounding villages. A mosque and several other homes in Dhayra were also hit.

“This is not my fight,” the retired chef said. “Israel blamed me, my children and my whole village.”

Although Dhayra is a Sunni Muslim village, its location on the border in south Lebanon — surrounded by cities mostly populated by Shiite Muslims – means Hezbollah retains control.

The village enjoys a good relationship with its neighbours but its residents maintain that they do not want to be dragged into conflict.

“We support the Palestinian cause. We’re with them. But not at our expense,” said Samir Sweid, a relative of Ali Sweid.

'We don't talk politics' - Neighbours with different view points

A similar sentiment is shared by residents of Rmeish, one of the few Maronite Christian towns on Lebanon's southern border. They fear that the town of about 12,000 people would lose its Maronite identity if war forced them to leave.

Already, most settlements along the border have transformed into ghost towns overnight because of the cross-border exchanges.

Almost half of Rmeish's resident left this week — “mostly families,” said Father Najib al Ameel, a priest and community leader in the town.

“I wish the people who evacuated the village hadn’t left. Imagine — what if the Israelis invade and establish a security zone like they did before,” said Raymond, a Lebanese-American bachelor who was passing the time with friends in a barbershop. “Would they let those who left back in? What would happen to the town then?”

He was referring to the 850 square kilometre area on the border that Israel occupied during the 1985-2000 south Lebanon conflict – an extension of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war – to create a buffer with Hezbollah and other armed militant groups.

The Israeli occupation left a sour taste in the mouths of many Rmeish residents who told The National they did not want a repeat of those events.

But a Maronite town in a region dominated by Hezbollah has little sway in the matter.

“We’re a peaceful town,” Raymond said, as his friends nodded agreement. “We don’t want war. If my neighbour wants to fight, let him fight outside Rmeish.”

Although Lebanon is fragmented on political and sectarian grounds, resident of the south have maintained a sense of fraternity despite the area's complicated history.

Raymond and his friends said the Rmeish had a good relationship with nearby Shiite villages.

“We’re neighbours and we’re brothers, but we don’t talk politics,” one of his friends, who preferred to go unnamed, told The National. “And if war breaks out and their people are displaced by the fighting then ‘ahla w sahla’, they’re welcome here.”

During the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, town mayor Milad Alam said Rmeish welcomed about 30,000 people from neighbouring villages who were displaced by the fighting, sheltering them in homes, churches and schools while it – sandwiched between the Hezbollah front on one side and Israel on the other – was besieged for 33 days.

The town was largely spared due to an agreement with Hezbollah not to launch any attacks near Rmeish in exchange for sheltering the displaced from Shiite villages.

This time, Father Al Ameel said, “We've already started preparing a field hospital in one of the schools, anticipating wounded from other areas."

The nearest hospital, in Bint Jbeil, is at least 12km away.

"And residents are preparing mouneh [traditional Lebanese preservatives] ahead of time in case we get besieged again,” he said.

'We're all civilians until the war begins'

Many residents of the next-door Muslim town of Ayta Al Shaab, a Hezbollah constituency frequently targeted by Israel this week, have also left.

A 32-year-old Hezbollah supporter who not want to be named said he would not leave the village.

"We're all civilians until the war begins," he said.

Still, he cancelled his wedding this week “because of the situation”.

Although he said he was “ready for war with Israel and we won’t stop until they stop what they’re doing to Palestine”, he was also concerned for the $80,000 house he built for himself and his-bride-to-be.

“If the house gets destroyed in shelling I don’t know what I’ll do,” he said.

Updated: October 16, 2023, 9:57 AM