Having let Hezbollah attack, can Israel put the toothpaste back into the tube?

The drumbeat of war seems to be becoming unstoppable

June 30, 2024 09:26

The northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona was once home to more than 20,000 Israelis. It sits in a valley, with Lebanon just a few miles away to its north and west. Today, only a few thousand Israelis remain and the place feels like a ghost town. The playgrounds are empty, the pathways to kindergartens are overgrown with weeds.

The city, like most communities in northern Israel near the Lebanese border, was evacuated in October after the Hamas attack on southern Israel. At the time it was believed a war with Hezbollah would break out, leading to a multi-front war for Israel. Residents feared Hezbollah would launch an attack similar to Hamas, overwhelming the border defences and massacring people. Eighty thousand Israelis were evacuated in a fortnight. Today, they wonder when they will return and if war will come over the summer.

On the main street in Kiryat Shmona there is a shop serving shawarma, the meat grilled on a skewer that is then cut into shavings and placed on a piece of flat bread. It was one of the only shops open when I came to the city on June 23. Just down the street there was still burnt debris from a missile impact earlier in the war.

The situation in northern Israel is unprecedented. Israelis have fled wars in the past, usually sending children away temporarily from border communities. But the country has never had eight months of endless war with no end in sight and communities displaced across the country. For people from northern Israel, this has become a long wait. More than 16,000 children were evacuated in October 2023 and need to be enrolled in school in the autumn. They will likely spend another six months away from their homes.

Israel’s political and military leaders have promised that they will bring people back to their homes and deal with the Hezbollah threat. However, the path to dealing with the Hezbollah threat is unclear. In conversations with locals, security experts and soldiers in northern Israel, it was clear to me that the consensus consists of several interconnected assumptions.

First, people think there will be a war with Hezbollah. They believe Hezbollah is a much stronger enemy than Hamas, capable of laying waste to parts of Israel with its arsenal of 150,000 missiles, and its new precision-strike kamikaze drones. There are also questions about whether Israel can defeat Hezbollah. Residents say they don’t want to return to the north as long as Hezbollah is on the border. If no diplomatic agreement can be found to push the terror group back, then war may come. And if war comes, many assume Iran will enter the war to back Hezbollah, leading to a regional conflagration.

This creates a kind of drum beat that assumes not only that war will come but that it will be devastating and perhaps compound the disaster of October 7.

Israel has several IDF divisions deployed in northern Israel today. They consist of regular and reserve soldiers who have been training and preparing for future conflict since October 7.

The army’s presence is not felt everywhere. In fact, there is an illusion of a kind of peace in northern Israel. Hezbollah carries out attacks every day, but they consist of a few drones, rockets or anti-tank missiles. Unless one is in the area of the attack it isn’t always felt directly. When I was in northern Israel on Sunday night, Hezbollah attacked the community of Metulla, north of Kiryat Shmona, using an anti-tank missile which wounded two Israelis. After the attack, the sound of artillery could be heard in the distance.

This illusion of peace does not change the fact that northern Israel is under the cloud of war. It’s like a storm that never breaks. With border communities evacuated, the usually busy roads are almost empty. Some are closed to most traffic near the border because Hezbollah possesses a large arsenal of anti-tank missiles that are well-suited to targeting vehicles. Towns and villages that usually host tourists over the summer are empty.

The challenge Israel faces today in northern Israel is complex. Hezbollah has already fired many thousands of rockets, drones and missiles at Israel. It increases the range and types of targets every month. For instance, in recent attacks it has moved from targeting IDF bases and soldiers to targeting Israeli defence industries.

Hezbollah has even released footage it said was taken from one of its drones showing how it could target sensitive Israeli military sites along the coast, such as a naval base, in a future war. For Hezbollah the daily attacks, which keep Israelis away from the north, is enough to achieve victory.

For Israel, victory in the north is more complex. Having let Hezbollah attack for eight months, it will be hard to put the toothpaste back into the tube. How can Hezbollah be deterred now that it knows every time it fires a few rockets, Israel will evacuate 80,000 people?

The residents don’t want to return if Hezbollah is along the border. But Hezbollah has no intention of leaving. Hezbollah may be open to playing a kind of “cup game” where it pretends to move forces off the border and puts civilian clothes on others, but Israelis won’t accept the illusion of peace knowing that there is a sword hanging over them.

June 30, 2024 09:26

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