AFP — The second milking had just finished, with the few remaining residents of Kibbutz Dafna persevering under the threat of a new front opening in Israel’s war with the Hamas terror group in Gaza.
Here, a few hundred meters (yards) from southern Lebanon, where Iran’s proxy terror group Hezbollah holds sway, the specter of another October 7 haunts civilians.
Almost all of the 1,050 residents of this agricultural community were evacuated to hotels close to the nearby Sea of Galilee. Only around 15 men stayed behind, charged with the security of the kibbutz.
Dafna is reached down a narrow and poorly maintained highway that Israelis call “the old northern road.”
Now, it is deserted, the cause clearly visible across the border — positions of Hezbollah, which has said it stands ready to step up its operations against Israel.
Twice a day, one less than before the war, the farmers come to milk their cows. “If we didn’t, they’d die,” said Arik Yaakobi, 45, one of the few who stayed.
“People are scared to return because of the possibility that Hezbollah might repeat what Hamas did,” he said.
On October 7, some 2,500 Hamas terrorists broke through the Gaza border, rampaging through communities and a desert music festival in southern Israel and massacring at least 1,400 people, most of them civilians. At least 245 civilians and soldiers were kidnapped that day, of whom four have been released by Hamas and one has been rescued by security forces.
Israel has responded with intense strikes on Gaza and a gradually expanding ground operation, declaring its intention to eradicate the terror group that rules the Strip.
In Dafna, only soldiers are visible on the streets. The signs of a hurried departure by its civilian residents are everywhere — children’s toys strewn on lawns, bicycles discarded against playhouses, laundry still hanging out to dry.
‘I don’t sleep anymore’
Occasionally, a resident returns briefly to water a lawn or gather a few belongings, but they soon leave.
Sarit Zehavi, founder and director of Alma, a research center in the Upper Galilee region, said she was worried about the safety of her family.
“I don’t sleep anymore. I think nonstop about the fence around my home that I need to reinforce. About Hamas. We have seen what could happen to us,” said Zehavi, a reserve lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army and mother of three children.
“The attacks from Lebanon are the doing of Hezbollah… and we know today that there is no barrier that could prevent an infiltration,” she added.
She then showed AFP a short Hezbollah propaganda film from 2014, in which its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, explains with a smile its plan to “control the Galilee” and lists the country’s strategic points — its factories, refineries, highways, shopping centers, airports, military bases and so on.
The similarities with the devastating onslaught that Hamas actually carried out are striking: massive salvos of rockets launched at northern Israel, a wave of Hezbollah commandos crossing the border and penetrating Israel, supported by drones and speedboats.
“It is certain that Hezbollah has in mind to invade the Galilee one day,” Zehavi said.
The government is taking the threat seriously. It was concern about a possible war with Hezbollah that prompted the authorities to evacuate 22,000 residents from the nearby city of Kiryat Shmona.
Only a few hundred remain, mainly the elderly or disabled — people taken care of by the army who have had to relocate to a camp on the edge of the town.
The same is true of all the kibbutz communities along the Lebanese border. Some, such as Hanita and Dafna, founded at the end of the 1930s, are now deserted.
A senior army officer deployed to defend the area told AFP: “We are being deployed here up north to defend our northern border against Hezbollah attack. We are… ready to deter any attack.
“Every day is a combat day, every day there are multiple attacks from Hezbollah,” added the officer, who did not wish to give his name.
Hezbollah and allied Palestinian terror groups have fired rockets and missiles across the border almost daily since October 7, drawing retaliatory Israeli artillery fire.
At least 62 people have been killed in Lebanon, according to an AFP tally, mostly Hezbollah terrorists but also four civilians, including Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah. Israeli officials have reported seven deaths, including one civilian.
In 2006, Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody war that left more than 1,200 people in Lebanon and 160 in Israel dead, after terrorists killed several soldiers and abducted the bodies of two of them in a cross-border attack.
Veteran Israeli intelligence officer Avi Melamed said it was far from certain that Hezbollah would go to war against Israel this time.
“The Iranians who control Hezbollah have a dilemma: do nothing and allow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to continue, or act and take the risk that Israel’s response destroys Hamas and Hezbollah’s ability to act,” said Melamed.
“That’s why, at this stage, they have only launched limited attacks, so as to avoid escalation,” he said.
In Kibbutz Dafna, Yaakobi remained worried nevertheless.
“We want to come back and live here, but the future is uncertain,” he said.
“And we have to keep milking the cows… even if they are frightened by the warning sirens or our artillery fire towards Lebanon.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.