In Israel's north, seeking a measure of calm as Mideast tensions spike

In the press are dire warnings that Saudi Arabia is angling to get Israel to attack Hezbollah as a proxy in the kingdom's conflict with its regional rival, Iran. But along Israel's quiet northern border, hopeful residents say little on the ground has changed.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
A general view shows the area (l. and bottom) where the Israeli army, in April 2016, was excavating part of a cliff to create an additional barrier along its border with Lebanon, as houses in Kibbutz Hanita are seen on the hilltop. As political and military tensions escalate between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, residents keep an ear on the news, but seem rather sanguine.

At first glimpse, the sweeping view north into Lebanon from this ridge-top border kibbutz appears so tranquil – dense forest hillsides of oak and pine cutting a swath of deep green under an open sky, a white-washed house with a red tile roof in the distance.

But look more closely, and part of the hill below has been leveled out by Israeli army bulldozers to help prevent possible raids by Hezbollah fighters. Nearby are a pair of radar towers, a small Israeli army outpost with a watch tower, and across the border fence a Lebanese Army lookout staring right back.

“They say it’s the Lebanese Army tower, but it’s Hezbollah. They control the Lebanese Army,” says Erez Adar, Kibbutz Hanita’s security officer and an officer in the Israeli reserves.

Last Wednesday he took part in an army drill, and in September he was one of thousands of reservists who trained in a 10-day drill – described by the military as the largest of its kind in 19 years – that prepared for possible war with Hezbollah. Among the drilled maneuvers: thwarting infiltration, and evacuating towns and other kibbutzim along the border.

Political and military tensions between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria – and in the region in general – have been intensifying. In the past two weeks alone, Israel launched an air strike on a reported weapons depot in Syria, and Syria responded by firing a surface-to-air missile toward the departing Israeli aircraft; and Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, stunned his countrymen with a surprise resignation from Saudi Arabia, suggesting his life was in danger and issuing harsh words for Hezbollah and Iranian meddling in his country.

Some experts see Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival for influence in the region, angling to get Israel to strike Hezbollah as part of their proxy war against Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used Mr. Hariri’s unexpected resignation to plead for international intervention to check what he says is Iran’s rising power in the region, describing it as a “wake up” call for the world.

But if Israel’s press has been filled with analysts’ dire warnings against Israel being pulled into conflict, Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general and former head of the National Security Council under Mr. Netanyahu, sounds a somewhat calming note: “Israel is mature enough not to fight on behalf of anyone else,” he says. “We will act in our own interests.”

Vigilant but calm

On Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, and further east in the occupied Golan Heights, along a narrow demilitarized zone bordering Syria, residents keep an ear on the news, but seem rather sanguine. They continue their routines of harvesting apples, building houses, running factories, and taking their kids to local playgrounds – even those, like at Kibbutz Hanita, that are feet away from the border fence.

In the Galilee, life has been “quiet,” as the residents describe the lack of cross-border fighting since the 2006 Lebanon war between Israel and Hezbollah, during which Israel came to the unsettling realization that its north was suddenly more vulnerable.

For Israelis and Lebanese, the 34-day war was a watershed. Hezbollah rockets penetrated Israel to an unprecedented extent. Missiles hit Haifa and other major civilian targets in the north, and more than a million Israelis relocated southward en masse during much of the fighting. A similar number in southern Lebanon also fled their homes during the fighting.

The Lebanese, bombarded by Israeli warplanes and artillery, lost 1,200 people in the war, including an estimated 270 Hezbollah militants and 50 Lebanese soldiers and policemen. In Israel there were 158 dead, the majority soldiers, although 43 civilians were killed by rocket-fire.

Experts caution that the next war could be even more punishing and open-ended.

Since 2006 Hezbollah has become stronger. Not only has it has used this period to amass more sophisticated weapons, it has been learning how to be more than just a strike force. In its years fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Hezbollah learned new skills, including how to seize control of towns and cities, and the logistics of large-scale missions.

Israel’s occasional airstrikes in Syria are, experts say, intended to stop Hezbollah’s efforts to expand its arsenal even further. Nevertheless, assessments of Hezbollah’s missile stockpile are that it has grown both in size – to about 120,000 – and range, able to cover most of Israel’s population centers, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Were Hezbollah to strike that deep, the experts say, Israel would likely respond by heavily bombarding rocket launchers that may be tucked into civilian neighborhoods.

Bilal Hussein/AP
Hezbollah supporters raise their fists and cheer as they listen to Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, via a video link, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday. The Hezbollah leader said Prime Minister Saad Hariri's 'forced' resignation in Saudi Arabia is unconstitutional because it was done 'under duress.' He also said that war with Israel is unlikely.

Hezbollah's warning

In May, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in a televised speech that the next war could be fought inside Israel and mocked the fortifications Israel has built to prevent infiltrations like the cross-border Hezbollah attack on an Israeli patrol that lit the fuse of the 2006 war.

In that attack, three reservists were killed instantly, and the bodies of two others were returned to Israel two years later in a prisoner swap.

Mr. Adar knew the reservists who were ambushed and killed, and had served with them previously as one of their officers. When he heard of the attack, he raced to the scene just a few miles from the kibbutz, arriving to see the bodies of his fallen friends.

Today he is among those on Hanita taking a measured approach as tensions escalate again.

“The alertness level has been raised, but there have been no changes on the ground. We are prepared if something happens. Our residents feel safe, and that’s our goal,” says Adar, a third-generation member of the collective community who, as he greets his infant daughter, his youngest of three girls, smiles and says, “And this is us working on the fourth [generation].”

Ariel Solna, in charge of garden and maintenance on the kibbutz, says there’s no point at becoming jittery at this point.

“What can we do anyway? We can’t change reality. So what does it help to be fearful?” he says.

In the Golan, the six years of civil war in Syria has turned what had for decades been a “quiet border” into an area now also familiar with occasional errant mortar fire falling, mostly harmlessly, on Israel’s side of the border. Along the northern-most stretch of the Golan, Israelis have even been able to see and hear the battles raging inside Syria.

“We know that all over the border of the Golan there are now terror organizations – there was ISIS and now there is Iran and Hezbollah. They are busy now, but the time will come to aim the guns at us,” says Dalia Amos, the local council’s spokeswoman. “But the army and citizens here are prepared, and we hope that won’t happen.”

Iran's strategic plan

Yet Israeli experts say that even if the consensus is that neither Israel nor Hezbollah are looking for a fight at the moment, geopolitical changes are afoot that could trigger an even unintended escalation of force.

“Syria and Lebanon are facing a dramatic change that could threaten Israel’s interests. Mainly the concern is about Iran’s growing involvement in Syria and with Hezbollah in Lebanon,” says Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben-Gurion University’s Chaim Herzog Center for Mideast Studies and Diplomacy.

“Israel is looking ahead to the day after the war in Syria ends, and the assumption here is that we are almost there,” says Professor Meital. Israel is focused on Iran’s role, “not necessarily only in terms of supporting the Assad regime, but also in terms of military presence and transfer of advanced weapon systems through Syria and via Hezbollah, also into Lebanon.” 

After Iran’s investment in the Assad regime during Syria’s civil war, he says, the Iranians think it’s payback time in the form of a new level of power and physical maneuverability in the region.

Mr. Amidror, the retired major general, says he does not think Mr. Hariri’s bizarre resignation or Saudi Arabia’s more aggressive stance in countering Iran are the main shifts regionally.

Rather, he says, it’s that Iran is moving to the next stage of its strategic plan after building up Hezbollah and stabilizing the Assad regime.

“And the whole Middle East will feel it,” he says. “Now is the next step in which they will consolidate their control over Syria and Lebanon."

A 'rational enemy'

Among Iran’s strategic goals, he says, are a land corridor from Iran and Iraq through Syria into Lebanon, Mediterranean naval bases, air bases in Syria, proximity to Israel’s border, and a presence in Yemen to be close to Saudi Arabia.

“The key for the next stage in the next few years in the Middle East,” he says, “is how far will the Iranians manage to push, and how they will be contained by Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

In the meantime, while Israel has benefitted from the Syrian civil war in that the Syrian Army has been weakened, the increased influence of Iran and Hezbollah there means the Lebanese Shiite militia has a new front with Israel on the Golan, says Yusri Hazran, a lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies in Jerusalem.

“Hezbollah now enjoys the choice one day of launching a war not just from the front of Lebanon,” he says.

This, Amidror argues, is all part of Iran’s plan.

But Dr. Hazran describes Hezbollah as a “rational enemy” and ideologically dedicated to fighting Israel on principle, not just as deflection from its own domestic problems. And, he and other analysts note, they are still smarting from the loss of up to 2,000 men in Syria – a significant number for a fighting force of an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, making it highly unlikely they would strike Israel in the near term.

For now, Israel is maintaining a dual strategy of sounding the alarm about Iran’s ambitions through Hezbollah with its allies and issuing bellicose statements, but according to Eyal Zisser, a Middle East history professor at Tel Aviv University and expert on Lebanon and Syria, this might not be the wisest approach either.

“Israel has a motivation to turn Hezbollah into a danger, and it is dangerous with its missiles, but let’s not turn them into the champions of the region,” Professor Zisser says. “They are still not an army.”

'The Wishing Tree'

Yoel Barkan, 79, sits in a café at Kibbutz Hanita with an espresso and a novel in the late afternoon. Mr. Barkan was born in Belgium on the eve of World War II, and was hidden with villagers for three years before being reunited with his parents. He’s been living on the kibbutz since 1958 and knows well the times he and other kibbutz members had to go into underground bomb shelters during times of war and flare-ups. In the 1970s, he did guard duty to help prevent attacks by infiltrators from Lebanon.

“We feel the tension, we hear the army Hummers going by,” Barkan said. “But what will be? We just don’t know.”

A short walk away, at an overlook into Lebanon, Yuval Vakrat, takes in the view.

“That’s the dissonance between the pastoral views and the tension of the conflict,” says Mr. Vakrat, a yoga teacher who grew up on the kibbutz.

He and two other kibbutz members found their way of feeling less helpless by forming an organization that brings groups of school children, both Jewish and Arab, well as tourists, to this spot they have renamed “Peace Ridge.” They have built art installations there, one they call “The Wishing Tree,” where visitors write their wishes down on round white pieces of paper and hang them from its branches.

Visitors have made and hung signs from the ridge that say “peace” facing a Lebanese village, just a quarter mile away in the valley below. They know the Lebanese villagers in Alma Shaeb probably can’t see their signs. But they hope the message, somehow, will still get through.

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