ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 285

Asaf Ben Lulu sits at the entrance to his home in Eilon on June 9, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Asaf Ben Lulu sits at the entrance to his home in Eilon on June 9, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/The Times of Israel)
Reporter's notebook

Braving Hezbollah’s drones and rockets, the few remaining northerners brace for war

Confronted with their communities’ vulnerability, a handful of locals stay put as they consider an uncertain future for themselves and their still-evacuated children

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Asaf Ben Lulu sits at the entrance to his home in Eilon on June 9, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/The Times of Israel)

KIBBUTZ EILON, Western Galilee — To the sound of birds chirping, Asaf Ben Lulu reads from the Bible on a Saturday morning, a mere 2.3 kilometers (1.4 miles) from the border with Lebanon.

It’s part of the early morning routine for Ben Lulu, a lighting technician and father of two who moved to Kibbutz Eilon in 2019. But the peaceful moment ends abruptly as an army radio emits static and a tense masculine voice announces: “Drone.”

Ben Lulu looks up, his eyes adjusting to the bright light as he searches in vain for the remote-controlled weapon that Hezbollah uses here frequently — and to deadly effect. Later in the day, a drone from Lebanon made another appearance over Eilon, circling for about three minutes over the kibbutz before flying purposefully back northward.

The instant switch from placidity to mortal danger is a feature of life in Israel’s north, an area of great natural beauty and tight-knit communities that some 60,000 people have left since October. Now, only a handful of residents remain, living amid exchanges of fire that began on October 8 between Israel and terrorists in Lebanon.

Ben Lulu is one of many thousands of reserve soldiers who have been guarding the border amid a gradual escalation in hostilities following the initiation of a conflict with Israel that Hezbollah and other Lebanon-based terrorist groups initiated following Hamas’s October 7 onslaught on Israel from Gaza.

Yet Ben Lulu isn’t just a soldier deployed at a random spot; he’s also a resident. When he’s off duty, he stays at home, where he and his wife Moriah are raising their two children — or at least had been until October 7. Now Asaf is home alone as Moriah and the kids are relocated to a kibbutz some 65 kilometers (40 miles) to the southeast.

A mosaic adorns an oak tree in Kibbutz Eilon, pictured here on June 9, 2024. (Sima Shimoni)

Like dozens of other border communities, Eilon is now populated only by a handful of undeterred civilians and some 20 local men like Ben Lulu, whose reserves service is to guard the infrastructure of their once-vibrant community.

“It’s an indescribable feeling, like watching the shell of something beautiful after its soul has been taken out,” Ben Lulu said of his kibbutz, which he described as the best place he’s ever lived. “Every other tree is a memory, every path brings back the echoes of where the kids played hide-and-seek or learned to cycle or just helped me rake some leaves.”

An Israeli army officer shows damage inside a house in the city of Kiryat Shmona, Israel, which was hit by a missile fired from Lebanon a few weeks ago, on June 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Eilon is a relatively large kibbutz with a pool and sports center, and a music conservatory with its own student dorms. Its pathways and streets are full of references to its Zionist origins, including old farming equipment that had been painted in bright colors for children to climb. A southern bunker system has also been preserved and turned into a play area, complete with a disused machine gun that had been painted pink.

Ben Lulu would like to stay here with his family, he said. He believes that the north’s eight-month-long evacuation is a strategic mistake and is hoping for an imminent showdown with Hezbollah so the terror group is pushed back from the border and its ability to threaten Israel is at least temporarily eliminated or diminished, he said.

A resident of Kibbutz Eilon prepares to feed the animals at the community’s petting zoo on May 20, 2024. (Sima Shimoni)

A car trailer stands on the front lawn of his family’s modest two-bedroom dwelling and, after finishing the Torah portion he was reading before the drone scare briefly interrupted him, Ben Lulu begins loading furniture onto the trailer’s bed. A series of thuds ring out across the mountains, the impact of rockets reverberating in the ground. It’s a routine occurrence here, and the locals have learned to ignore it. When the warning sirens wail, they calmly walk over to a sheltered area, looking out as one does while awaiting a downpour to pass.

“We’re not moving out,” he said, smiling, realizing what this looks like to his interlocutor. The Ben Lulus are upgrading their living situation inside Eilon and Asaf is using the time to move their belongings gradually so that when the family returns “everything will be in place.”

But that won’t happen unless Hezbollah is beaten back, he said.

Lifting the veil

Ben Lulu evacuated his family independently out of Eilon immediately upon hearing of Hamas’s onslaught on October 7, in which about 3,000 of its terrorists murdered some 1,200 Israelis and abducted 251.

“October 7 gave us an existential jolt because it unveiled the danger with which we had been living for years,” he said, adding, “I assumed Hezbollah would invade imminently, and I knew we had no forces that could stop them.”

An orphaned shoe lies on the deserted deck of the main lawn of Kibbutz Eilon, where families normally gather for picnics on weekends, pictured here on June 9, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Ben Lulu and wife Moriah now need to decide whether to enroll their children in school at Beit Alfa, the kibbutz where she and the kids are staying, or hold out in the hope of returning to Eilon by September. Meanwhile, the family is living “a reality full of contradictions,” Asaf said, referencing his solitary move to a bigger family home, in a nearly deserted place that he chose for its community life.

Beyond the fear of an onslaught by Hezbollah terrorists, who, unchecked, could reach Eilon within eight minutes on motorcycles, there are the rockets and drones that cruise over Eilon and other border communities frequently and brazenly. They make locals like Ben Lulu realize that Hezbollah can not only rain down indiscriminate fire, but also may target and blow up their homes or families with pinpoint precision.

Ben Lulu assumes that Israel will soon neutralize Hezbollah’s drone capabilities. It’s the children’s school bus ride that really scares him.

“The road has a line of sight to Lebanon. Hezbollah terrorists have been watching my kids through the sights of their anti-tank missile launchers. There’s no intercepting those rockets. The kids are not getting on that bus again as long as this is the situation,” he said.

Fires blaze after missiles launched from Lebanon hit open areas in the Galilee area, northern Israel, on June 12, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Only Hezbollah can prevent forest fires

In recent weeks, some of the hundreds of rockets that Hezbollah fired into Israel have started forest fires. Over the weekend, Hezbollah fired rockets on Tiberias and other communities near the Sea of Galilee, 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of Lebanon. Those launches, which didn’t result in fatalities, happened during the post-Shavuot holiday weekend as thousands of Israelis were vacationing on the lake’s shores.

Some packed up and left, but the attacks failed to deter many campers who stayed put despite the blare of warning sirens near their tents.

The Cohen family of Ashkelon watch the sunset on the Sea of Galilea’s Gofra Beach on June 12, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“We’re from Ashkelon and my reserves service is in the Upper Galilee so we’re not so easily rattled,” one vacationer, Kobi Cohen, 39, told The Times of Israel on Saturday. His two elementary school-aged daughters and three other relatives were watching the sunset on the shore as he prepared supper for them on Saturday night.

Hezbollah has killed some 30 people in Israel since October, including at least 10 civilians. Israel has killed at least 400 people in counterstrikes in Lebanon, mostly Hezbollah terrorists, including some top operatives. Many Israelis view the situation as the prelude to large-scale hostilities in the north and Lebanon, where Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets with the range to reach population centers as far away from the border as Beersheba and Dimona.

Fires on Ramim Ridge on the outskirts of the northern city of Kiryat Shmona, Upper Galilee near the Lebanese border as a result of rocket fire from Hezbollah, on June 3, 2024. (Michael Giladi/ Flash90)

‘We didn’t decide to stay, others decided to leave’

Back in Eilon, long-time resident Sima Shimoni, 69, and her husband are among the handful of civilians who stayed. A steel-willed kibbutznik who has been confined to a wheelchair since infancy due to polio, she objects to the framing of this journalist’s question on what made her “decide to” stay.

“First of all, we didn’t decide to stay. The others decided to leave. Staying is the default,” she said.

But Shimoni, who has one son and three stepchildren, does not fault anyone for leaving, temporarily or permanently, she said.

“Look, I’m nearly 70 and I’m at the end of my journey in this world so I’m not at a stage where I feel like breaking routine,” she said. “But these are personal choices and it’s complicated, so I understand.”

Shimoni fears for the future of her kibbutz, a community of some 1,100 people that had a 4% growth rate before October 8. Like Ben Lulu, she expects many residents of border-adjacent communities to leave regardless of what happens with Hezbollah. (Unlike Ben Lulu, she does not wish for a showdown with the terrorist group because she opposes war on principle.)

“I think many people will leave, and if anyone will come in their stead it’s Haredim. And that really worries me,” she said.

But, reconsidering, she added: “Actually, you know what, nothing worries me. Not really. I’m enjoying life here. Everything is fine.”

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