Michael Oren

Israel is losing the north

A zero-tolerance policy for Hezbollah rockets is the first step to saving the country – and its borders – as we know it
Fires burn next to the northern city of Kiryat Shmona on June 3, 2024, following rocket and drone attacks from nearby Lebanon. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)
Fires burn next to the northern city of Kiryat Shmona on June 3, 2024, following rocket and drone attacks from nearby Lebanon. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

In contrast to English, in which people who can’t get their bearings straight become disoriented – literally, they fail to find the east – in Hebrew, we say ma’abedim et ha- tzafon,” they lose the north. The expression could not be more appropriate. With each day of mass displacement, deadly rocket and drone fire, and failure to take on Hezbollah, Israel is losing the north.

For nine straight months, beginning on October 10, Hezbollah has been pummeling the north. Thousands of rockets, exploding drones, and anti-tank missiles have been fired at border villages and at cities as far south as Tiberias. Dozens of Israelis have been killed and wounded. Just this week, Hezbollah barrages hit both the Golan Heights and the Lower Galilee, killing three civilians.

Fearing an October 7-like attack by Hezbollah’s Radwan terrorists and a repeat of the mass flight of Israelis from the north during the 2006 Lebanon War, the government ordered the evacuation of civilians living within five kilometers of the border. Firing well beyond that line, however, Hezbollah has driven many others from their homes. The once vibrant city of Kiryat Shmona is now a ghost town and much of Metula lies in ruin. Some 80,000 Israelis have been displaced or, more accurately, uprooted from their workplaces, their schools, and communities. Levels of family violence, substance abuse, and divorce have soared.

The situation deteriorates daily, yet Israel desperately wants to avoid an all-out war. Its response to Hezbollah’s assaults has been limited to the elimination of senior commanders and active terrorist cells. Unlike their Israeli counterparts, Lebanese border towns remain largely unscathed and the country is rigorously attracting tourism. Still, as the rocket fire from Lebanon increases, so, too, do the chances of a single missile hitting an army base or a school. Israel would have to respond massively. War would erupt not only with Hezbollah but also with Iran and its proxies. Swaths of Lebanon would be laid to waste.

And the world will once again blame Israel. The international media has almost totally ignored Hezbollah’s aggression or, as in the case of The New York Times, cast it as retaliation for Israeli attacks. Israel, meanwhile, has done little to lay the diplomatic groundwork for large scale military action. When I brought the first-ever delegation of uprooted Israelis to Washington last month, most of the Congressional and federal officials we met were utterly uninformed about the north.

That ignorance, more unconsciously, exists in Israel itself. Few seem aware of the dangerous shortage of medical and firefighting equipment in the border settlements, the dearth of bomb-proof shelters for their defenders, and even fuel for their generators. With much of the nation’s attention understandably focused on Gaza and the hostage crisis, and the government seemingly eager to play down its fear of war, northerners feel that the country has abandoned them. Their plight barely makes the news. They have no indication of when, if at all, the fighting will end or how Hezbollah will be forced to retreat from the border. IDF commanders in the region estimate that as many as 40% of its previous population is unlikely ever to return.

Israel is losing the north, but the loss will not be of land alone. Endangered, too, is the state’s commitment to defend all of our citizens irrespective of their place of residence, to preserve our precious human and natural resources, and to deter our enemies. Nor will that fate be confined to the north but, along with Hezbollah’s southward-creeping rocket fire, it will eventually afflict the center. A new northern border running from Haifa to Kfar Saba is not unimaginable, or even from Ra’anana to Netanya.

Such disastrous outcomes can still be averted, though. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has said he will accept a ceasefire if Hamas does. Israel must exhaust all diplomatic and military means to pressure Hamas to accept the hostage-for-ceasefire deal currently on the table. At the same time, Israel must urge President Biden to reaffirm his October warning of “Don’t” to Iran and Hezbollah and put teeth into it. Any attempt to destroy Israel, the statement must say, will be met by a punishing US counterstrike.

Finally, and most crucially, Israel must take immediate and substantive steps to demonstrate its commitment to the north. The IDF must adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward Hezbollah rocket and drone attacks and cease broadcasting fear to the region. If French and American mediators fail to persuade the terrorists to comply with UN Resolution 1701 and withdraw beyond the Litani River, then Israel must push them back by all means necessary. Israel must make clear that the status quo ante of October 6, with Hezbollah deployed right up to the border, is not revivable. As in Gaza, where the newly-forged buffer zone has helped to restore the confidence of Israelis to return to their former homes in the Gaza Envelope, so must the enforcement of a similar zone in the north convince northerners that Hezbollah terrorists cannot merely cut through the fence and slaughter their families.

Yet such measures alone will not suffice to save the north. Post-war, Israel must mount a national campaign to develop and reinvigorate the area. In partnership with world Jewry, the state must build industrial and high-tech parks, enhance tourist sites, and construct the schools, hospitals, and transportation systems capable of serving hundreds of thousands of new northerners. The cradle of much of our Talmudic tradition, of the Christian, Bahai, and Druze faiths, and of the Zionist pioneering idea, a region of vast untapped potential, the Galilee must exemplify Israel’s future.

Nine months of disorientation, as we say in English, and, in Hebrew, of losing the north, can still be rectified. We can regain our bearings and define a clear way forward. With courage and vison, we can achieve greater security and prosperity for all Israelis from Metula to Eilat.

About the Author
Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset Member, and Deputy Minister for Diplomacy, is the founder of the Israel Advocacy Group and the Substack, Clarity.