Northern exposure: Israel's homeland on the front line

Border tensions are growing between Israel and Hezbollah.

A bunker in Kibbutz Misgav Am (photo credit: LINDA GRADSTEIN)
A bunker in Kibbutz Misgav Am
(photo credit: LINDA GRADSTEIN)
BEZALEL LEV-TOV, a longtime member of Kibbutz Misgav Am, which sits on the border between Israel and Lebanon, looks northward over the green hills of south Lebanon.
“See that black car over there,” he says.
“That’s a Hezbollah car. We see them all the time.”
Misgav Am is the site of one of the most famous terrorist attacks in Israeli history.
In 1980, a group of five Palestinian gunmen belonging to the Arab Liberation Front backed by Iraq, snuck into the kibbutz from south Lebanon. At that time, children slept in a special “children’s house,” and the gunmen took the toddlers hostage until Israeli special forces stormed the area the next day.
A kibbutz member, as well as a toddler and an Israeli soldier, were killed in the attack, along with the five gunmen.
Yet Lev-Tov insists he is not afraid of a Hezbollah attack on his kibbutz of 350 members, and has turned the bomb shelter in his home into an art studio.
“I’m much more afraid of my second exwife,” he says, tossing his gray ponytail and laughing.
Despite Lev-Tov’s easy confidence, after an alleged Israeli strike on the T-4 base in Syria that killed seven Iranian military officials, and as Lebanon prepares for its first parliamentary elections in 19 years, tensions are growing between Israel and Hezbollah.
Iran, which is Hezbollah’s patron, has vowed to retaliate for the Israeli attack, and Israel has sent reinforcements of soldiers to both the Syrian and Lebanese borders. Analysts say that it does not seem that either Israel or Hezbollah are interested in a war, but tensions or mistakes could spark a new conflict between the two sides. They say that Iran could choose to retaliate against Israel using Hezbollah, which functions as an Iranian proxy.
Despite the growing tensions, everyone agrees that the past 12 years – since a UN ceasefire ended the 34-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah – the border has been quiet. Part of that is due to UN forces who patrol the area as part of the cease-fire.
UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti says there are currently 10,500 UN troops in south Lebanon undertaking hundreds of patrols day and night.
“We haven’t witnessed any entry of weapons into the south,” Tenenti told a group of visiting journalists. “We patrol between the Litani River and the Blue Line (the border demarcation between Israel and Lebanon), and we report to the Security Council every time there is an incident.”
Israeli intelligence officials scoff at Tenenti’s conclusion. They have long maintained that Hezbollah is hiding weapons in private homes in south Lebanon. They also say that Hezbollah now has more than 100,000 rockets, including long-range rockets that can hit all of Israel. There is an evacuation plan for all of northern Israel in case of a war.
“We know that Hezbollah has built their bunkers and stored their weapons under schools and hospitals,” Kobi Marom, a reserve colonel who is an expert on radical movements in the Middle East says. “They know that pictures of dead civilians will resonate for them, and they are using the life of their people in a cynical way.”
Marom said that in the 12 years since the last war with Israel, Hezbollah has improved its military capabilities significantly, including establishing a unit of special forces called Radwan and developing a capability for cyberwarfare.
Over the past seven years, thousands of Hezbollah members have been fighting in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is also backed by Iran and Russia.
These fighters have helped Assad win the war, although they paid a heavy price with more than 1,200 Hezbollah fighters killed.
While south Lebanon is a Hezbollah stronghold, some in the area say they would prefer their fighters stay at home rather than continue fighting on behalf of Assad.
Marom says the number of Hezbollah fighters in south Lebanon has grown from 7,000 to over 40,000 today. They are part of the Lebanese government and stand to gain even more power in the next parliamentary election. Israel has warned that if Hezbollah attacks Israel, it will respond with attacks on Lebanese infrastructure, including power stations.
Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who is living in hiding, fearing an Israeli assassination attempt, has ratcheted up his anti-Israel rhetoric. After the assassination of senior Hamas official Fadi al-Batsh in Malaysia, Nasrallah blamed Israel and said that “some Lebanese minds have been killed under mysterious circumstances over the past few weeks and months around the world.”
Lebanese social media also published photographs of four scientists who were killed under mysterious circumstances and blamed Israel for their deaths.
A FEW MILES from Misgav Am is the town of Metulla, where Israel has recently built a border wall to protect residents from a possible Hezbollah attack. Mayor David Azoulay says the town is surrounded on three sides by south Lebanon and there is just one road in and out of Metulla.
Recently, a rocket fired from Lebanon landed in fields outside Metulla, sending residents to shelters. Azoulay insists it was an atypical event.
“There is no fear or panic here,” he says.
“There is a strong army presence and we are ready to react to any emergency.”
He says that six times in the past six months, Hezbollah demonstrators across the border have cursed and threatened him by name. Once a month, Hezbollah fighters patrol along the Israeli border, and in the past have even brought the media along.
According to the cease-fire from 2006, they are not allowed to patrol the area armed.
Metulla was founded in 1896. Down the road from the local council building is the Lishansky Boutique Hotel, founded in 1936. Claire Lishansky, who runs the hotel, says that it is not always easy to live in the town, so close to Hezbollah.
“We feel like we are in a pressure cooker and we never know when something can start,” she says. “We have a very good quality of life here and we enjoy every day that it is quiet.”
She says that the tensions with Hezbollah have not affected Israeli tourism to the area and tourists come to see the flowers in spring and to relax in the summer.
Mayor Azoulay says that local officials in the north cooperate closely with the Israeli army and do not rely on anyone else to protect them. He adds that the UN patrols are not a real deterrent to Hezbollah, which often flies yellow Hezbollah flags along the border.
UNIFIL spokesman Tenenti says beyond the patrols, the UN facilitates three-way meetings between the IDF, the Lebanese army and his forces at least once a month. It enables the two sides to discuss any violation of the cease-fire agreement.
“These are two countries at war still monitoring the cessation of hostilities. To have the chance to meet once a month with both parties in the same room is important,” he says. “We try to decrease tensions and solve any issues. We have had over 100 meetings since 2006 and no one has walked out.”
He says one of the UN’s goals is to strengthen the Lebanese army, a goal shared by the US, which has given the Lebanese army more than $1.5 billion in assistance over the past 10 years.
At the same time, Israel is preparing for another eventual conflict with Hezbollah – a conflict they hope will come later rather than sooner.