Israelis near Lebanon border caught between Israeli and Hezbollah fighting
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While Israel is fighting in Gaza, it's also trading fire regularly with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia that operates in Lebanon to Israel's north. Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to attack Lebanon like Gaza if Hezbollah escalates the conflict. NPR's Brian Mann reports that many Israelis say a full-scale war with Hezbollah is inevitable.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I arrive at Kibbutz Lehavot HaBashan, a short drive from the Lebanon border on a beautiful springlike afternoon. This is the Upper Galilee region in the far north, sort of the Vermont of Israel. And the first person I meet is Ranaan Monika.
RANAAN MONIKA: I have a workshop - bike workshop.
MANN: For 20 years, Monika has been guiding tourists on mountain bike trips through these hills. That's all stopped.
MONIKA: Yeah, because the war now - so it's a bad situation, and we don't have the customers. Nobody want to come.
MANN: No customers and a lot fewer neighbors. Israel's government says more than 40 communities in this area have been evacuated since October 7 because of the threat of Hezbollah, which operates nearby. More than 60,000 Israelis were required to leave their homes. Other families left voluntarily.
MONIKA: Now we just have people here in the kibbutz. We don't know, actually. We're living day by day. I'm not afraid, if you ask me.
MANN: Do you have family?
MONIKA: Here? Yeah, yeah. Of course.
MONIKA: Kids and family.
MANN: Kids and family. Do you ever think this is too risky?
MONIKA: Not yet. Not yet. Not yet. It's my place. It's my home - I born here.
MANN: There were full-scale wars fought on this frontier in the 1980s and again in 2006. Both sides regularly trade artillery and sniper fire. But after Hamas' attack on Israel October 7, there's been more shooting, more rockets. Ziv Marom was also born in this kibbutz.
ZIV MAROM: The Galil is the most beautiful place in Israel, and it was developing and developing and developing. It was crazy how beautiful it was. And now the people that lives in kibbutz near the borders are not planning to come back.
MANN: Marom runs a coffee shop here. Now it's mostly empty. He says people fear there might be raids on their homes by Hezbollah, like the one Hamas carried out in the south.
MAROM: It could be the same - the same event here in the north. And the Hezbollah is a stronger army than the Hamas. The fear, it grew up.
MANN: When I ask what Israel should do to give them back their sense of safety, I hear one idea from people here over and over - many want a full-scale war.
MAROM: I know now that we have to crush them and crush them big time, big time. They understand power, and that's what we need to show because we have power.
MANN: The U.S. and other countries are scrambling to contain this war, limiting it to Gaza and Israel's already bloody fight with Hamas. But Israeli soldiers like Zohar Benshushan (ph) say the danger posed by Hezbollah has risen a lot.
ZOHAR BENSHUSHAN: We think that they have a lot of power and more ways to attack us and hurt the community here in the north, so it really feels like protecting my home.
MANN: Benshushan is 24, a reservist in Israel's army from the northern city of Haifa. She's based here at a forward lookout post, one of the closest defensive positions Israel's army maintains on the Lebanon border. She takes me across the muddy yard to an observation post, and Lebanon is right there.
BENSHUSHAN: You really can see the houses. If you just go, you can see that.
MANN: NPR has sent reporters to those villages, and they, too, are largely empty. Many Lebanese families have also fled because of the increased artillery exchanges and the heightened risk of war. Many feel, without Hezbollah protecting them, Israel would invade Lebanon as it's done in the past. Benshushan, the Israeli soldier, says Hezbollah fighters are over there, well-armed and organized.
BENSHUSHAN: Sometimes, it's also scary. This one time, I was in the shower, and the shooting started. And it was really scary. I ran to my room and, you know, take my clothes and weapon and went outside. So it's - really can attack you anytime.
MANN: Many Israelis who consider the Upper Galilee their home tell NPR the Israeli army's presence is comforting, but not enough. They say the border is too big, too porous to defend reliably. After leaving the frontier, I stop in the city of Nazareth, a 90-minute drive away, where people evacuated from northern communities are being housed by the government in hotels.
EREZ BERGMAN: We're here already five weeks, more than - a little bit more than 300 people.
MANN: Erez Bergman is from the Snir kibbutz. His entire community is here, men, women and a lot of kids, including his own. He says, after seeing what happened during Hamas' attack, he's thinking about leaving the North for good to protect his family.
BERGMAN: Yes. I'm saying it sadly, but yes, I do not want to make my children in a position that they are harmed.
MANN: Bergman, too, says there's only one thing that will make him feel safe returning home. He wants a full-scale war that will do to Hezbollah what Israel is now trying to do to Hamas.
BERGMAN: I mean, we will fight very hard Hezbollah. That's the only option. It's not a good option. But if we want to go home and feel that there's nobody near the border that can threaten us or children, that's the only solution I can see.
MANN: Many of the Israelis interviewed by NPR voiced impatience with their government for not already striking harder against Hezbollah. Others predicted that as soon as the fight with Hamas is over in the south, Israel's military will turn its attention here.
Brian Mann, NPR News on the Israel-Lebanon border.
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