In Israel’s north, a slow-burning war is raging with Hezbollah

Ever since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and the latter’s subsequent invasion of the Gaza Strip, Israel’s northern border has seen a slow-burning war between the Israeli forces and Shia and Palestinian militias on the other side.

Updated - April 19, 2024 08:59 am IST

Published - April 19, 2024 08:33 am IST - Western Galilee, Israel

Israeli forces check the site that was hit by a Hezbollah rocket in Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel near the Lebanon border.

Israeli forces check the site that was hit by a Hezbollah rocket in Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel near the Lebanon border. | Photo Credit: AFP

“War is bad for everyone. And we live in constant fear,” says Asiya, who lives in a village near the Israeli-Lebanon border. Hailing from Israel’s minority Druze community, Asiya hosts tourists and visiting delegations at her home in Yanuh-Jat for lunch. She offers traditional Druze food in a large house on a hill. From her balcony, the heights on the Lebanese-Israel border that have been on fire for six months are visible.

Read more on Israel-Palestine Conflict

“After the war began, business was down. We get practically no tourists these days,” said Asiya, a mother of three who lost her husband a few years ago.

Ever since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and the latter’s subsequent invasion of the Gaza Strip, Israel’s northern border has seen a slow-burning war between the Israeli forces and Shia and Palestinian militias on the other side. Southern Lebanon is the stronghold of Hezbollah, the powerful, Iran-aligned Shia militia. Hamas’s Qassem Brigades and the Islamic Jihad’s al-Quds Brigades also have some limited presence in southern Lebanon. These groups have launched multiple rocket attacks into northern Israel since October 7 “in solidarity” with Palestinians and Israel has carried out hundreds of retaliatory strikes in Lebanon.

Yanuh-Jat, which was hit by rockets from Lebanon in April 2023, has relatively been quiet in the latest round of conflict. But Asiya is worried that if the tensions escalate on the border, her village and its over 6,000 residents, mostly Druze, would get caught in the war. Like most houses on Israel’s border, Asiya’s house also has a bunker. She says she has 15 seconds to take shelter in the bunker once the alarm goes off in the event of a rocket attack.

Between October 7 and March 15, Hezbollah, and other militias in Lebanon and Israel exchanged at least 4,733 attacks across the border, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a non-profit. Of these, Israel accounted for 83% of the attacks, totalling 3,952 incidents, while Hezbollah, Amal Movement and Palestinian militias launched 781 attacks.

Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006, has stated that it would continue attacking Israeli positions as long as the Gaza war continues. On Wednesday, Hezbollah launched a rocket and missile attack at a military facility in northern Israel, wounding at least 14 soldiers. The militant group said it attacked in retaliation against an Israeli air strike that killed Hezbollah members.

“We have been at war since October 7,” said Sarit Zehavi, the founder and president of Alma Research and Education Centre, a think tank focused on Israel’s security. Ms. Zehavi, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Israeli Defence Forces, said Hezbollah is carrying out a well-calculated campaign from Southern Lebanon. “It’s not a full-scale war. But Hezbollah has managed to terrorise the whole Upper Galilee region.”

According to Alma’s research, Hezbollah has carried out over 1,000 attacks on Israel since October 7. Over 57% of these attacks have targeted military facilities, while 43% were aimed at civilians. Hezbollah and other militants have used anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, drones and mortars in these attacks. And Israel’s repeated air strikes inside Lebanon targeting Hezbollah positions and commanders did little to deter or blunt Hezbollah’s fire power, according to Alma.

After the northern border turned into a war zone, Israel evacuated 43 communities (61,000 people) in the Upper Galilee region, located up to 5 km from the border. Most of them have taken temporary shelter in hotels in the Northern District. The displacement has added pressure on the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to calm the border region and allow the displaced to go back to their homes.

“Hezbollah has always set their eyes on Upper Galilee. Now they have managed to push Israelis out of the region. Hezbollah’s plan is to occupy Galilee,” Ms. Zehavi told The Hindu at her office in Upper Galilee. She said there has never been real peace on the northern border even after the 2006 war. “The war did not deter Hezbollah. They have been amassing strength all these years,” she said.

Despite speculations that Hezbollah would open a second front in the north, the Shia militia group has maintained its controlled warfare against Israel over the past six months. It triggered a cycle of retaliatory strikes. Israeli attacks in Lebanon have killed at least 357 people, including senior Hezbollah commanders, since October 7, according to ACLED. On the Israeli side, 22 people lost their lives in attacks from Lebanon.

The situation became worse after Iran’s April 14 air attack on Israel. Now, when Israel is preparing its response to Iran, Hezbollah is upping the ante on the border.

“I can’t say how the situation is going to play out. Israel is not interested in a war with Hezbollah. Hezbollah wants to keep the status quo as it benefits them,” said Ms. Zehavi. “Israel wants to take the displaced back to their homes. But that’s not possible as long as cross-border firing continues. And Hezbollah says there won’t be a ceasefire unless there’s a ceasefire in Gaza. Even if there’s a ceasefire, it would only embolden Hezbollah. They could do what Hamas did on October 7 with much more ferocity,” she added.

The writer was in Israel as part of a media delegation.

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