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World

Praying for peace, preparing for war

A history of conflict along Israel's northern border with Lebanon colors life for residents there, be they Jewish, Arab or Druze. Hezbollah and the Israeli Army are two of the major players.

Kinerette Rinat BenSimon remembers well the last time there was trouble on the northern border with Lebanon.

Her young daughter was terrified and refused to hide in her kindergarten's bomb shelter unless her mother was there. Her three-year-old son was ecstatic that there were so many tanks on the street and thought the whole 2006 Lebanon War was a big game. A game that was being played out in Zari't, their village in Israel's Upper Galilee.

BenSimon simply remembers it as the first time she was really afraid.

"I don't get scared easily but my child was in Shomera and my other child was in kindergarten here in the village," she said. "There was confusion; they didn't let us go in, and the roads were closed. It was a very, very scary time for me."

Constant reminders of war

War is nothing new for the 10,000 residents of the Ma'aleh Yosef Regional Council area of the Upper Galilee, on Israel's northern border with Lebanon. Between wars they utilize the downtown to try to develop industry, tourism and agriculture as well as attract new families to live in the area. The Israeli government offers attractive packages to draw people: half to one dunam (0.1 hectares; 0.25 acres) of land, up to 100 percent of the infrastructure costs and the valuable support of the Housing Ministry to approve their plans.

But a Katyusha rocket head that decorates the gate post of Zari't resident Yonatan Maman's house serves as a constant reminder that it's not a matter of if, but when, there will be another war.

Yonatan Maman aside a rocket head

Yonatan Maman aside a rocket head - a reminder of war

"We know exactly that another war will happen. Nobody knows when, how. We have to be prepared. The Hezbollah in Lebanon is not going to give up. We're very worried about what's happening in Syria because it works together," said Ma'aleh Yosef Regional Council mayor Avi Kramba.

Hezbollah, Israeli Army are actors

Fifty-eight-year-old Kramba remembers a time when Israelis and Lebanese would sit together for a cigarette or a coffee and return dozy camels and donkeys that strayed across the border. Today, he can see militant political group Hezbollah's positions a few hundred meters away from Zari't's main street, through the barbed wire. The relative quiet on the border is deceiving, he says, in light of current events.

Hezbollah's launch of an Iranian-sponsored drone into Israel in October has been labeled by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as a "reckless provocation." The drone was shot down by Israel in an area near its Dimona nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert.

Syria's bloody civil war further complicates Lebanon's already fraught politics. Israel states openly that it will not hesitate to intervene militarily should Syria's chemical weapons make their way into Hezbollah's hands.

The presence of the Israeli Army is very visible in the area, and the villages are protected by barbed wire, security outposts and cameras. Locals regularly train with the Israel Defense Force and the Interior Ministry to make sure they all know their designated jobs when the next war starts.

Living in fear

It's not just Jewish citizens who are affected by the proposition of war. Eight kilometers (five miles) away from Zari't is the Arab-Christian village of Mi'ilya, which also paid a high price in the 2006 Lebanon War, in which 165 Israelis and 1,300 Lebanese people were killed in a 34-day military conflict.

Vater Elias Abed

Elias Abed said people are anxious and seek to live peaceably

Village priest and school principal Father Elias Abed hesitates to recall the last war. Many of Mi'ilya's residents were wounded by shrapnel from Katyusha rockets, and two of his own parishioners were killed. Rockets, he says, don't differentiate between Arab, Jew, Druze, Muslim or Christian. Everyone in the region - irrespective of religion - is worried about current events.

"They are anxious, all the time they worry," says Abed. "You know, when the people don't speak about the problem that means that the problem becomes now more dangerous. The people are quiet; they don't want to speak about it because they don't want to think it will happen again."

Mi'ilya residents live peaceably with their Jewish neighbors, and all the local villages - Jewish, Arab and Druze - help each other in times of war. But because Mi'ilya is much older than the neighboring Jewish villages, 28 percent of the population doesn't have bomb shelters built in their homes. They're preparing shelters, food, water, and activities to occupy their children in the event that war does break out on the Israeli-Lebanon border.

But rather than dwelling on what might be, Father Elias said, he is encouraging his parishioners to pray that one day, there will be peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. No doubt, in the villages on the other side of the border, there are Lebanese villagers praying for exactly the same thing.

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