Northern Israeli residents split over need for war to destroy Hezbollah

Families struggling to plan for uncertain future as tensions mount on border with Lebanon

Tens of thousands of Israelis have fled the northernmost parts of the country, fearing escalation with Hezbollah. EPA
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Lior Shelef lights cigarette after cigarette in the smoking room of a new five-star hotel in the north of Israel. Despite the peaceful, luxury surroundings, he and his family are going through a personal catastrophe.

Mr Shelef’s wife and children were among the roughly 120,000 Israelis evacuated by the government after October 7 from areas surrounding the Gaza Strip and the northern border with Lebanon and Syria.

Their fate is fast becoming one of the most pressing political issues in Israel. Housing them in hotels across the country is a massive financial burden on the state, takes a huge psychological toll on the evacuees and, in the eyes of many citizens, is an unacceptable humiliation at the hands of Israel’s enemies, who in the course of a day emptied large swathes of a country that was supposed to be a safe haven for Jews.

In the south, there are expectations that people are on the cusp of returning, as Israel continues to damage Hamas’s capabilities in Gaza.

There is no such expectation for people in the north, where Israel and Hezbollah – a militant group far more capable than Hamas and in possession of about 150,000 rockets and missiles – trade increasingly aggressive fire, adding to fears a catastrophic war is on the horizon.

An alert pops up on Mr Shelef's phone showing another rocket attack on Snir, the kibbutz close to the occupied Golan Heights in northern Israel where his family has lived for decades.

Mr Shelef, an army reservist, keeps a particularly close eye on the situation because he is part of a small security force made up of residents who have stayed to guard Snir in case of a major escalation.

It is a dangerous responsibility – Mr Shelef’s friend was killed by Hezbollah anti-tank missiles in a neighbouring village in January – but he is happy to do it.

“I get to see the kids whenever I can,” he says. "It’s not on a weekly basis, if everything is sort of OK then maybe once every two weeks or so.

“I love my country and I love my army. I can admit that most reservists are excited when they put their uniform on again.”

But as the months drag on, he cannot help but think the situation is unsustainable.

The security team on his kibbutz, whose income relies heavily on agriculture, is struggling to harvest as fast as usual.

The kibbutz faces a far worse existential threat because of the evacuation.

“We built a new neighbourhood in our kibbutz about a year ago, for 23 new families who only recently came to the community,” Mr Shelef says.

“Now most of them don’t want to come back. They want to sell their homes.

“The whole idea of the kibbutz movement is to build new settlements on the borderline to grow Israel. Now it will be harder to do that, [which is] exactly what Hezbollah wants. [Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah] now has a buffer zone inside Israel."

“Even keeping the soldiers in shape for that long is hard,” Mr Shelef adds.

“We’ve had to build a training schedule. I gained about 7 or 8 kilos since the beginning. You eat horribly during war.”

Most of all, Mr Shelef misses his family, who recently moved further north to be closer to him, after a two-and-a-half month stint in a hotel in Nazareth.

“On one level it was nice for the kids being in a five-star hotel with knafeh for breakfast,” he says.

“But it still wasn’t home, which eventually drove them nuts. They would start screaming at breakfast that they wanted to go home. It was really hard.

“It’s a little bit better since we came here. On the downside, we are close to the border so there are more rocket alarms.”

The growing urgency of the evacuee issue has led to an intense and at times bitter debate within Israel about how to restore safety in country’s peripheral areas.

“I think most Israelis want to hit Hezbollah hard,” Mr Shelef says.

He is familiar with war. He is a reservist in an elite unit and has fought in operations and conflicts across the region, including in Lebanon.

Nonetheless, he desperately wants a diplomatic solution, fearing a war would be a “catastrophe” for both sides.

Former intelligence official Sarit Zehavi thinks a great deal about what such an arrangement would involve.

She runs a think tank dedicated to security in the north and lives in the area with a young family.

“Hezbollah is no longer focusing only on military targets,” she says. "Maybe that was true at the beginning but now we are gradually seeing more and more accurate targeting of civilians.

“A diplomatic arrangement is definitely an option but can we get one in which we’re not fooling ourselves?

“After all, we had one before that Hezbollah violated from day one,” she says, referring to UN Resolution 1701, which was intended to restore peace in the region after the 2006 Lebanon War.

There is widespread feeling within Israel that Unifil, the military coalition charged with keeping peace at the border, has failed in its mission.

Ms Zehavi says there are four conditions Israel needs to arrive at an acceptable deal: disarmament of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon; a proper means of enforcing an agreement; a strict deadline for its implementation, after which Israel can take military action; and Hezbollah relinquishing its claim on the contested areas of Sheeba Farms and the town of Ghajar.

She acknowledges these conditions are unlikely to be accepted by Hezbollah, which has sought to maintain pressure on Israel as long as it continues its offensive in Gaza. The group has repeatedly said it is not afraid of a large-scale war, while maintaining proportionate responses to increasingly escalatory Israeli strikes.

Lebanon also considers the Sheeba Farms to be illegally occupied by Israel.

"I don’t think we’ll get a diplomatic solution,” she says. “I’m just listing what the Israeli requirements should be. I admit that Hezbollah probably won’t agree to these principles.”

Ms Zehavi is uncompromising on the need to deal with the problem of Hezbollah, even if it means a devastating war.

“After October 7, I don’t sleep,” she says. "I have a little girl and am not willing to live next to this monster any more.”

Updated: March 09, 2024, 4:30 AM