James M. Dorsey

Is Lebanon Israeli settlers’ next frontier?

Credit: The Turbulent World

Even by Israeli standards, Uri Tzafon (Awaken North) is a far-right fringe group.

Amid mounting tension with Lebanese Shiite political group and militia, Hezbollah, along the Lebanon-Israel border, Uri Tzafon is calling for Israeli settlement of southern Lebanon.

The group has yet to gain traction. Uri Tzafon’s membership is in the low teens. Less than 300 people attended the group’s recent online conference.

Few, if any, of the 80,000 Israelis who were evacuated in October from their homes in northern Israel because of daily exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and the Israeli military have expressed support for Uri Tzafon.

On the Lebanese side of the border, 90,000 people were forced to leave their homes.

Ultra-nationalists, including Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, proponents of annexation of Palestinian lands and an all-out war with Lebanon, have steered clear of a group that, even for their taste, is an outlier.

Uri Tzafon’s fringe status is telling in a country that is accelerating annexation of the West Bank, and many call for reoccupation of Gaza.

Even so, Uri Tzafon echoes a principle that is becoming more prominent among Israelis, including soldiers serving in Gaza. The principle is whoever attacks Israel risks losing their land.

The group finds Biblical justification for its claims in Deuteronomy 3:25. Describing Moses’ appeal to God to allow him to enter the Promised Land, the chapter quotes the prophet as saying, “Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan—that fine hill country and Lebanon.”

Last week, Uri Tzafon sent drones and balloons into southern Lebanon carrying eviction notices to the region’s residents.

“The announcements make clear to the residents that they are in the Land of Israel, which belongs to the Jewish people, and that they are required to evacuate immediately,” the group said in a statement.

“As I see it, our call to our enemies – for Gaza as well as in southern Lebanon for Hezbollah – is: Whoever messes with Israel will lose the territory they attack us from. We will conquer that territory, we will settle that territory, and we will protect our civilians. If they dare attack us, we’ll take more. We’ll stop conquering when you stop attacking us,” said Leah, one of Uri Tzafon’s founders.

A preschool teacher in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and a settler in Gaza until Israel dismantled its settlements in the Strip in 2005, Ms. Leah declined to be identified by her last name.

Uri Tzafon’s fortunes could change if nine months of cross-border hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel in the wake of Hamas’ October 7 attack and Israel’s response escalate into a full-fledged war.

Israel has increasingly insisted that the presence of Hezbollah on its border is no longer tenable. Based on United Nations Security Council resolution 1701 adopted in 2006 to end the then war, Israel is demanding that Hezbollah redeploy to north of the Litani River, 30 kilometers from the border.

“We are approaching the point where a decision will have to be made, and the (Israeli military) is prepared and very ready for this decision,” Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said while touring an army base in northern Israel.

In his first sit-down interview on Israeli television since the Gaza war erupted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military’s focus could shift to Lebanon because the “intense phase of the war with Hamas is about to end.”

The prime minister said the shift would be, “First of all, for protection purposes, and secondly, to bring our residents home as well. If we can do it politically, that would be great. If not, we will do it in another way, but we will bring everyone back home – all the residents of the north and the south.” Mr. Netanyahu was referring to Israeli evacuees from the Lebanese border as well as areas adjacent to Gaza.

In December, Mr. Netanyahu threatened to do to Lebanon what Israel has done to Gaza.

“If Hezbollah chooses to start an all-out war, then it will, by its own hand, turn Beirut and southern Lebanon… into Gaza,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Hezbollah has rejected any discussion of border arrangements until a ceasefire in Gaza is implemented.

Last week, Israel said it had finalised plans for a Lebanon offensive after Hezbollah drones successfully evaded Israeli air defenses and penetrated the country’s airspace to film military installations and critical infrastructure.

In response, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that his group would fight with “no rules and no red lines.”

Mr. Nasrallah added, “The enemy knows well that we have prepared ourselves for the worst… and that no place across the Zionist entity will be spared by our missiles and drones.”

Raising the stakes, Lebanese whistleblowers reportedly revealed that weapons, including a highly explosive and toxic white powder known as RDX, arriving on flights from Iran were stored at Beirut airport. The whistleblowers alleged that there was an increased presence of Hezbollah commanders at the airport.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah-backed caretaker Public Works and Transport Minister Alli Hamieh was quick to deny the allegation.

With Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant visiting Washington for talks with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other senior officials, the Biden administration appears to have another chance to avoid an escalation that could provoke a regional Middle East war.

“The meetings with the senior (US) government officials are critical for the future of the war” in Gaza and Lebanon, Mr. Gallant said as he departed for Washington.

Last week, President Joe Biden’s Middle East envoy, Adam Hochstein, failed to reduce tensions in talks in Jerusalem and Beirut.

Mr. Gallant’s visit comes amid a public spat between Messrs. Biden and Netanyahu after the Israeli prime minister accused the president’s administration of holding up arms shipments to Israel.

US officials said they don’t know what Mr. Netanyahu is talking about.

If Mr. Netanyahu is correct, resuming the shipments could be the carrot US officials dangle to achieve Israeli restraint in Lebanon. It would allow Mr. Netanyahu, pressured by his far-right coalition partners and mass protests calling for his resignation, to project himself as having stood up to the United States.

Uri Tzafon’s antecedents suggest that one ignores the group at one’s peril.

Its call for settlement of southern Lebanon echoes a call by Gush Emunim or Bloc of the Faithful, the original ultra-nationalist West Bank settlers’ movement that called for the return to the “homeland of the tribe of Asher” during the 1982 Lebanon war. Asher is one of Judaism’s ten lost tribes.

Like Uri Tzafon, Gush Emunim was a fringe group created in 1974. Fifty years later, West Bank settlers are a powerful political force in Israel. Messrs. Ben Gvir and Smotrich are among the 750,000 Israelis that live in West Bank settlements today.

Daniella Weiss, a one-time Gush Emunim leader, and Yehudit Katzover, a settlement activist in the 1970s and 1980s, were among the speakers at the Uri Tzafon conference.

“There are many obstacles, but we will bang our heads against the wall, and the wall will break. In Lebanon as well,” said Ms. Weiss, who is on the frontline of the campaign to resettle Gaza.

Ms. Weiss and Ms. Katzover “are one of the success stories of Israel’s last half-century – and if they’re joining the movement to settle South Lebanon, who are we to call them delusional?…  They’ve already proved that in Israel, today’s delusions are tomorrow’s policy and the next day its reality,” said Israeli journalist Anschel Pfeffer.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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