Uneasy quiet grips northern Israel as remaining residents brace for war with Hezbollah

Israeli forces are on high alert amid fears that cross-border clashes could escalate at any moment

An Israeli medical vehicle moves along a road near the northern town of Kiryat Shmona. AFP
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The green expanse around Israel's northern border with Lebanon should be full of tourists, but for more than three weeks, it has been nearly deserted.

On Monday, the campsites and playgrounds meant for visitors were populated only by soldiers. They barbecued, played cards and slept in tents or hammocks during their time off. When on duty, they slipped into the foliage in preparation for enemy attacks.

The restive Israel-Lebanon border – much of it demarcated only by flimsy, rusty fencing – could soon become a second front in the war between Israel and Hamas.

Israel’s adversaries in the north are a complex mixture of groups committed to its destruction. Hezbollah, with its vast rocket arsenal, military experience and Iranian financial support, is the ultimate concern. Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups also have a presence in Lebanon's unruly refugee camps.

On a road leading to Kiryat Shmona, Israel’s northernmost city, a camouflaged senior soldier emerged from behind trees and shrubbery, flanked by his troops.

Standing next to a line of advanced Merkava 4 tanks, he wasted no time in admitting the catastrophic failure of his military on October 7, when Hamas militants broke through the high-tech fence separating Gaza from Israel, killing and kidnapping civilians.

“We are humbled,” the soldier said. “The IDF [Israeli military] failed its mission. It failed Israel and its citizens in the south.”

He said his troops were ready to avoid a repeat in the north.

They have had more time and notice to get prepared. Significant firepower was already in place before October 7, and the region has its own special forces unit. Residents also have experience defending themselves.

However, with its vast resources, Hezbollah is deadly adversary – even more so than Hamas.

The soldier emphasised that the military must walk a tightrope between deterring Hezbollah and avoiding a war.

“Our mission here is to defend the northern border without escalating and opening a second front. Within those parameters, we are being adamant in our defence. It’s an art, not a science,” he said.

“We’re very much in control.”

Local resident and former intelligence official Sarit Zehavi felt less confident.

She has barely slept since October 7.

“I had never feared for the lives of my children until three weeks ago,” she said.

“What happens to us when the US carrier off the coast of Haifa goes back home? What will eliminate Hezbollah, our neighbouring monster?

“I want to order a new fence for my house. I tell my 10-year-old that if there’s shooting, stay away from glass and don’t go into the safe room – we saw on October 7 how the safe room is a death sentence.

“I now sleep with my socks and shoes next to the bed.”

Ms Zehavi has expert knowledge of the capabilities Hezbollah has built up in Lebanon, including reinforced border tunnels into Israel, command posts, training grounds and rocket launch sites.

She does not think Israel's defences are fully prepared.

“Parts of our border fence are old and rusty, but regardless, the Israeli military has learnt that there is no physical barrier that can prevent an invasion,” she said.

“I’m not even sure it could prevent the infiltration of a squad. That’s why Israel took the decision to evacuate civilians – if the invasion happens, the fight will be inside their empty communities.”

They are already being attacked. A rocket destroyed an evacuated house in Kiryat Shmona on Sunday.

It could soon be far worse. Ms Zehavi said Hezbollah was capable of launching 4,000 rockets a day for a month, a rate that could overwhelm the Iron Dome air defence system, the pillar of Israel’s protection of civilians from enemy rockets.

As a resident of the area, the pain is clear in Ms Zehavi voice.

“My children grew up with a sense of security here, a sense that they could go to the nearby Arab town and eat pizza at midnight, and the only thing I’d be worried about was whether they’d be drinking alcohol with the pizza – no more than that,” she said.

She is determined to fight for her family, friends and the north of Israel, like all the soldiers and remaining residents whom The National met in the area.

“Israelis live everywhere in the state of Israel. Wherever we don’t live will not be the state of Israel. If these people do not get back to their homes, we will go back in five years and find Hezbollah. This is how it works in this jungle,” she said.

Border kibbutz on high alert

Arik Yaacovi, a spokesman for Kibbutz Dafna, is similarly determined.

His community is more than 1.5km from the Lebanese border.

The kibbutz is a 85-year-old institution that used to have about 1,050 residents. In normal times, its main income comes from slipper manufacturing, agriculture and tourists coming to bathe in the Dan River and stay in an award-winning hotel.

On Monday, Kibbutz Dafna’s population stood at 15 – the residents responsible for securing the community.

Despite the modest numbers, Mr Yaacovi had faith in his comrades.

“Over our nearly 85-year history, we have learnt to defend ourselves,” he said.

“We’ve learnt how to smell in self-defence. We can tell when the smell of gunpowder is from a Lebanese rocket or Israeli artillery firing back.”

The 15 security guards have had less time to learn how to milk the kibbutz’s vast dairy herd, whose udders are swelling. They used to be milked three times a day – now there’s only enough hands to milk them once.

In Israel’s south, the danger of today’s war is most evident in physical damage: burnt property, smashed cars and rocket craters.

In the north, it is the largely quiet, save for the interruption of artillery, bombs and military vehicles on the move.

Mr Yaacovi, who for so long has been welcoming people to this region, is pained by the atmosphere, despite his determination.

“I hope you come back and enjoy a visit in happier times,” he said.

Updated: November 01, 2023, 3:09 PM