When the Israeli TV in the corner of the screen turns orange, it means an alarm in a particular area. Usually Israeli kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip are noted, such as Be’eri or Kissufim. But in recent days, the northern towns of Shtula and Kiryat Shmona are increasingly listed. And even the outskirts of the major port city of Haifa appeared on the screen Monday. The reports of sirens reflect the growing tension between the Israeli army and Lebanese Hezbollah.
Boaz Shalgi, who lives in a kibbutz 12 kilometers from the border with Lebanon, also noticed this. “Here in Kiryat Shmona a rocket landed and we are still being shelled daily. The explosions I show feel like earthquakes. It’s pretty scary,” said Shalgi, who is one of the few residents still remaining in northern Israel. Large parts of southern Lebanon and northern Israel have now been evacuated.
Shalgi doesn’t want to think about that. “I don’t think it’s the right solution. If we trade our home for a place we don’t know, it doesn’t feel right. Besides, it also sends a bad message to our enemy. If we flee from our homes, it feels like a victory to them.”
Indeed, it is part of the message Hezbollah wants to deliver, observes defense specialist Peter Wijninga, affiliated with the Hague Center for Strategic Studies. “They are creating fear among Israeli residents in the north.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote Monday morning that the Shiite organization is playing dangerous games that could lead to the opening of an entire second war front. But Wijninga does not see a major escalation happening. “Hezbollah lacks the heavy striking power to carry out an invasion on Israeli territory. They can make things pretty difficult for Israel, like shooting all kinds of things through the air, and then they can easily get to Haifa.”
Funded by Iran
Hezbollah, the “party of god,” as the organization also calls itself, is led by Hassan Nasrallah. This militant (considered terrorist by the United States) political organization originated in the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s. It can count on the sympathy of the regime in Iran because of its Shiite background.
Hezbollah is considered by analysts to be more threatening than Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The fighters have experience fighting in Syria and receive weapons from Iran. “An inexhaustible source,” Wijninga calls these arms supplies. “Those are different kinds of rockets, artillery and mortars. With these they can do quite a lot of damage.”
And Israel has been noticing that since Hamas launched its attack on Oct. 7 and Israel hit back hard. On Sunday, for example, 14 Israeli civilians were wounded after Hezbollah fired anti-tank rockets. One of the victims has since died. Civilians in Lebanon are also no longer safe and fear a wider conflict. Earlier, four civilians were killed, including a woman and three children, after an Israeli airstrike. Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah was also killed.
Reports from Lebanon claimed Sunday night that the Israeli army had distributed pamphlets in southern Lebanon calling on residents to head north. Earlier in the war, Israeli authorities began evacuating all communities within 2 kilometers of the border with Lebanon.
War of Hamas
It is the escalation Hamas has been aiming for, Wijninga says. “They know full well that when there are attacks, Israel is going to strike back harder than the attack itself. And that’s what happened after the horrific attack on October 7th. It is exactly what Hamas needed to get the Arab world in an uproar.”
Sympathizing groups like Hezbollah, as well as Iraqi Shiite militias and the Houthis in Yemen are also showing their support. “The Houthis have already fired rockets several times and Shiite militias in Iraq have already attacked 68 U.S. targets. The conflict is now escalating horizontally; it is spreading to other groups.”
Throwing oil on the fire is how Wijninga describes Hezbollah’s attacks. “Partly to damage Israel, but also to bind Israeli troops who then cannot be deployed in Gaza or the West Bank. I don’t think Hezbollah has very big plans. It has itself indicated that they have been caught off guard by Hamas’ actions.”
Meanwhile, Israel has called up more than 300,000 reservists who are present in both the south and the north. But the focus is clearly on the south, where Israel is engaged in a ground operation in the Gaza Strip.
Whether the Americans will get involved in the fight, Wijninga does not know. “The U.S. is trying to avoid that. The Americans do defend their own units being attacked by Syrian and Iraqi militias. They can continue to do that.” The aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean are seen as muscle. “They mainly serve as a warning.”
Dilemma for Israel
One of Israel’s dilemmas in this war is whether to prioritize fighting Hamas in Gaza or send more troops north. If Israel chooses to head off Hezbollah, which incidentally happened earlier during the 2006 war, Israel destabilizes Lebanon.” And Lebanon could then slip back into civil war,” Wijninga said. “Israel benefits from stability in Lebanon, and partly that stability is based on Hezbollah. Because they also do domestic policy.”
Still, many think a pre-emptive strike against Hezbollah would make more sense than waiting for Hezbollah to attack itself, Israeli media write. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned that Hezbollah is “on the verge of making a serious mistake,” which could even cause Beirut residents to flee their homes.
Harsh language, used by both sides. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah also says further escalation is realistic and they are ready for any scenario. In his first speech, he applauded Hamas’ “heroic action.” On Saturday, Nasrallah made threats against Israel in his second speech, but showed no readiness for all-out war.
Kibbutz resident Boaz Shalgi sees a big role for Hassan Nasrallah, who he says is now dictating the volume of war in the north. Things can escalate quickly, he sees. “Such situations can change completely in two seconds. It can become a major regional conflict just like that.”
Shalgi’s work as a tour guide is on hold because of the war.” I try to garden at the entrance to the kibbutz every day for several hours. My wife prepares hot meals for the Israeli army. I also try to spend more time with the family. Also with the thought that things could just go wrong.”