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Israelis near Lebanon border fear all-out war with Hezbollah

Tania Krämer in northern Israel
July 2, 2024

Cross-border fire between Israel and Hezbollah has intensified in recent weeks. People who have remained in northern Israel are worried that full-scale war could break out at any time.

Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes in Khiam, Lebanon, as two people look on
Although both sides have signaled they don't want all-out war, could conflict between Hezbollah and Israel be imminent?Image: Taher Abu Hamdan/Xinhua/picture alliance

From time to time, the sound of shelling disturbs an otherwise quiet day as Gilad Yehudai walks along a hill on the outskirts of Kibbutz Shamir in the Upper Galilee region of northern Israel. The Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is just a few meters away, and further to the northwest lies the Blue Line, the UN-demarcated border between Israel and Lebanon.

But Yehudai, 45, said the relative calm is misleading. "Here in the Upper Galilee and all along the border with Lebanon, it's already a war: missiles, drones, fires, alarms all the time, also from the Israeli side, airplanes in the sky," he told DW. 

He worries the situation is about to get worse. "People who live in the center of Israel do not feel the war as we feel it," he said. "I hate to say it but I trust them [Hezbollah], I trust their threats and that they will follow up on them."

A middle-aged man in a black T-shirt and glasses stands outside the door of his house, smiling
Gilad Yehudai and his family live near the border with Lebanon, but they prepared to leave at a moment's noticeImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

In recent weeks, cross-border attacks between Israel and Hezbollah have intensified, with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia firing rockets and drones from southern Lebanon deeper into northern Israel and the Israeli air force striking deeper into southern Lebanon. Both sides have also ratcheted up their rhetoric and threats, raising fears that all-out war could be imminent.

Meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on a recent visit to Washington, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, "Another war between Israel and Hezbollah could easily become a regional war, with terrible consequences for the Middle East."

Gallant told Austin that Israel prefers diplomacy but is ready for everything. "We do not want war, but we are preparing for every scenario."

Tens of thousands unable to return home

More than 60,000 Israelis have still not been able to return home since residents up to 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) from the border were ordered to evacuate following the Hamas terror attacks on Israel on October 7. At least 25 Israelis, civilian and military, have been killed in the north in attacks from Lebanon.

On the other side of the border, tens of thousands of residents in southern Lebanon have also been displaced, and some 400 people have been killed. The vast majority were Hezbollah operatives, but the death toll includes at least 50 civilians. 

Hezbollah holds an estimated arsenal of 150,000 rockets and missiles capable of striking anywhere in Israel. Israel, meanwhile, has warned that it could send Lebanon back to the "Stone Age" if diplomacy failed.

Three firefighters speak, standing next to a fire truck
Firefighters in the region have been dealing with larges fires sparked by rockets and intercepted missilesImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

Firefighters at the Hatzor fire station are also preparing for the worst. Israel's dry, hot summers always keep them busy, but this year, they're also dealing with large fires sparked by rockets and intercepted missiles, which have severely damaged nature reserves, parks and forests.

"We know it's going to be much harder, so we're preparing ourselves, getting forces and equipment, refreshing ourselves," said Gadi Azoulay, a commander with the fire service. "Now we're at a stage where we're waiting for the next wave if it comes, and I hope it doesn't."

A security official stands on the side of a dirt road next to his vehicle, looking at his phone, a dry forest behind him
Cross-border clashes, along with hot, dry weather, have already damaged nature reserves and forests

In the first months of the war against Hamas, Hezbollah's strategy appeared to be mainly designed to support Hamas in Gaza and to tie any cessation of hostilities in the north to an end to the fighting in Gaza.

"Hezbollah interfered because of this Iranian strategy to unite forces around Israel's borders," said Harel Chorev, historian and expert on Palestinian affairs at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. "Hezbollah is saying a very simple thing: As long as you are fighting the Gaza Strip, we will harass you and preserve this war of attrition in your northern border."

Israel may opt for a preemptive strike on Hezbollah: analysts

The recent shelling comes after a long period of relative calm, punctuated only by a few brief incidents of cross-border attacks. The last time there was open conflict in the area was a monthlong war in 2006, and it ended with a UN Security Council resolution. But recent mediation efforts by US envoy Amos Hochstein have so far failed to de-escalate the current situation or reach a diplomatic agreement, though both sides have signaled they don't want an all-out war.

According to Israel's post-October 7 doctrine, the country needs to rebuild its deterrence and "make sure that Hezbollah doesn't carry out the next October 7," said Chorev. Some analysts believe Israel could opt for a preemptive strike against Hezbollah to push the militant group out of the border area.

Expert: Israel-Hezbollah war 'would be a disaster'

"In Israel, there is a majority supporting the war against Hezbollah to destroy them in a manner that will prevent them [from achieving their] intentions, which are to invade northern Israel, to capture Israeli settlements and to take hostages. According to any poll, this is the most dominant approach. Despite the price we have to pay, we need to hit them now," said Chorev.

The constant cross-border fire has affected life on both sides of the border. Driving in the north on mostly empty roads adds to the surreal atmosphere, as Israel jams GPS signals in the area to prevent GPS-guided attacks. Smartphone navigation apps tell their users that they are actually somewhere in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

Despite living just outside the official evacuation zone, Yehudai, his wife, their two children and the family dog left in October after the first Hezbollah attacks. They have since returned home, but their suitcases remain packed and waiting at the door.

Yehudai, who described himself as a liberal and left wing, doesn't want to see a war but can't see a diplomatic solution either.

"I know that the guys across the border want to kill me. I know they have the ability, and they can do it now," he said, adding that even an agreement between Israel and Hezbollah may not be enough to ease his worries. "Will it give me the confidence to stay here when I know at any given moment, they can change their wish?"

No one imagined this situation would last for nine months, said Yehudai, and recent warnings of an imminent all-out war with Hezbollah are constantly on his mind. "Every night before we go to bed, every morning when we wake up, we think about whether we should stay or go, because we don't know what will happen next."

Edited by: Andreas Illmer, Martin Kuebler