Reporter's notebook'They decided that it’s a great time to escalate'

Jitters grow along Lebanon border as Hezbollah provocations become more brazen

Though locals in Alawite village straddling northern frontier say things are calm, military and residents of other towns fear potential war with Iran-backed terror group

Emanuel Fabian

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

View of Mount Dov, also known as Shebaa farms, from the village of Ghajar on the Lebanon border, August 2, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
View of Mount Dov, also known as Shebaa farms, from the village of Ghajar on the Lebanon border, August 2, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

GHAJAR — For residents of this small Alawite village straddling Israel’s border with Lebanon, where recent tensions with Hezbollah have centered, there has been a prevailing sense of calm the past few months despite escalatory provocations by the Iran-backed terror group that have drawn little response.

However, the military and residents of Jewish-majority towns within range of Hezbollah’s rockets are gearing up for the worst.

The peaceful mood of the only Alawite-majority settlement in the country was shattered for a brief moment last month when Hezbollah launched an anti-tank guided missile at the village, slamming into a cliffside and a fence on the southern part of Ghajar, in an apparent message to Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces responded by launching a number of artillery shells at the general area from where the missile was launched, causing no damage or injuries in Lebanon.

Ghajar has been thrust into the spotlight in recent months, with Hezbollah demanding that Israel withdraw from the village, of which the northern half is in Lebanese territory, although not administrated by Lebanese authorities.

Standing around 4 kilometers (2.4 miles) from where Hezbollah established two tents inside sovereign Israeli territory, Jaber Khatib, who works at a family-owned pastry shop in Ghajar, called the tensions between Lebanon and Israel “their internal politics.”

Originally, Ghajar was part of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981. In 2000, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon following a 15-year military occupation, and the United Nations demarcated the so-called Blue Line, Ghajar was split in two, with the northern half coming under Lebanese control.

Israel regained control over the entire village during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, after Hezbollah used the Ghajar area to stage attacks. The town remained a closed military zone for more than two decades, with special permission required for nonresidents seeking to enter or exit through an army checkpoint.

In September 2022, with the construction of a fence around the northern side of the village to block the entrance from Lebanon, the military lifted the access restrictions. The fence surrounding the northern part of Ghajar was built at the initiative of the local council, rather than the military. The Israel Defense Forces, since 2010, no longer maintains any permanent military presence in the northern part of the village — which is technically in Lebanese territory — until the matter is resolved by the UN.

View of a fence surrounding the northern portion of the village of Ghajar, that straddles the border with Lebanon, August 2, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Israel and Lebanon do not have a formal border due to territorial disputes; however, they primarily abide by the UN-recognized Blue Line between the two countries. The Blue Line is marked with blue barrels along the border and is in some areas several meters from the Israeli fence — or wall in some areas — which is built entirely within Israeli territory.

Months of rising tensions

Though Israeli forces generally do not operate on the northern side of the village and the fence was established by the local council months earlier, Hezbollah has sought to establish an equivalence. In April, the Shiite organization crossed the Blue Line demarcation in the nearby Mount Dov, also known as Shebaa Farms — an area claimed by Lebanon — to establish two tents manned by Hezbollah operatives.

Israel has relayed requests via the UN to have the tents removed, with Hezbollah demanding in response a complete Israeli withdrawal from Ghajar. Residents of Ghajar, meanwhile, have repeatedly objected to a potential division of their village and annexation of its northern half to Lebanon.

One tent was removed after Israel sent a message to Hezbollah threatening an armed confrontation if it did not dismantle the outpost soon. But the second has remained there for months, with no Israeli military action.

Aside from the tents, Hezbollah has instigated other provocative actions along the frontier for months.

In mid-July IDF troops filmed camouflaged Hezbollah members walking along the border near the northern Israeli town of Dovev. The troops did not engage them.

The patrol was in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the month-long war in 2006, bars armed groups aside from the official Lebanese military and peacekeeping United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon from operating south of Lebanon’s Litani River.

Members of the Hezbollah terror group are seen walking along the Lebanon border, in July 2023. (Courtesy)

On July 15, a group of Lebanese, including a parliamentarian, crossed the border into Israeli sovereign territory, before being chased back to Lebanon by IDF troops who fired warning shots. A day earlier, on July 14, the IDF said troops fired warning shots and used riot dispersal means after several Lebanese suspects hurled stones toward the border.

On July 12, the IDF detonated a non-lethal explosive charge after Hezbollah members attempted to damage Israel’s border fence. In another area, Hezbollah activists climbed an Israeli military tower on the border and stole surveillance equipment. And in a third incident that day, IDF troops fired warning shots at a group of Hezbollah activists who launched fireworks and set fires near Metula, during a protest to mark 17 years since the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

In June, Hezbollah said it shot down an Israeli drone flying over a village in southern Lebanon.

In April, dozens of rockets were fired from Lebanon at Israel, injuring three and damaging buildings. Though Israel blamed the rocket fire on the Palestinian terror group Hamas, it was seen as having been carried out with the tacit approval of Hezbollah, which maintains tight control of southern Lebanon.

Separately, in March, the IDF blamed Hezbollah for sending a terrorist to infiltrate Israel from Lebanon and plant a bomb at a junction in northern Israel. The blast seriously wounded one Israeli man. The military never publically announced any response.

‘Great time to escalate’

During a tour of the border Wednesday, organized by the Media Central group, Col. (res.) Kobi Marom — a local resident and former commander of the Golan-based Hermon Brigade — said it was “unacceptable” that Hezbollah was escalating the situation with little response from Israel.

“It’s unacceptable that a terror organization that controls Lebanon next door deters Israel, which is one of the strongest countries in the Middle East. But that’s the reality, and I think it happened because of the Israeli strategy and policy in the last ten years, which has been totally a huge mistake,” Marom said.

View of the Israeli military security barrier on the border with Lebanon, close to the northern town of Metulla, with the Lebanese town of Kfarkela in the background, August 2, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Marom said Iran had given Hezbollah “a green light” to escalate the situation in recent months, driven by a high level of confidence.

Hezbollah is more confident due to Israel’s perceived limited responses to its actions and Iran is more confident amid closer relations with Russia, renewed ties with Saudi Arabia in an agreement brokered by China, along with indirect negotiations with the United States through Oman on nuclear issues, he said.

“They decided that it’s a great time to escalate the situation, and for Hezbollah to create a kind of war of attrition along the 70 miles of the Lebanese border,” Marom said, adding that Iran and its Lebanese proxy “understand the weakness of Israeli policy.”

“The fact that Israel did not respond after the Meggido [junction] terror attack. The fact that the Israeli government did not respond after 40 rockets were launched at the western Galilee. The fact that Israel did not respond to the anti-tank missile that was launched at Ghajar just three weeks ago. And the fact that they violate Israeli sovereignty and built a tent with ten Hezbollah terrorists in Israel. It’s unacceptable,” he said.

Col. (res.) Kobi Marom, speaks to journalists near the northern town of Metulla, on the border with Lebanon, August 2, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Israeli defense officials, meanwhile, have warned lawmakers that internal tensions over the government’s controversial plans to overhaul the judicial system, have emboldened Israel’s enemies, who “see the situation as an opportunity to attack.”

During The Times of Israel’s visit to the border, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi and President Isaac Herzog also toured the area and released photos of them doing so, in a bid to portray a message of resolve in the face of the confident terror group.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has approved several courses of action recommended by the IDF, with regard to the continued Hezbollah actions, notably the issue of the tent in Israeli territory.

The IDF has assessed that the chances of an escalation with Hezbollah are the highest they have been since the 2006 war, and anticipate that the next conflict would also erupt on multiple fronts.

Hezbollah has long been the IDF’s most potent adversary on Israel’s borders, with an estimated arsenal of nearly 150,000 rockets and missiles that can reach anywhere in Israel.

‘Need to be prepared to take care of ourselves’

The Hezbollah rocket threat has residents of the north worried, with many towns lacking enough bomb shelters.

Gidi Harari, a retired colonel and the deputy head of the first responders team in the northern moshav of She’ar Yashuv — around 5 kilometers (3 miles) south of the border — said that in a potential war, the town would most likely need to evacuate.

A public bomb shelter in the northern town of She’ar Yashuv, August 2, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

“The army won’t be able to take care of us because in the first week, it’s the [time with the] most [intense] fighting on the border. So we need to be prepared to take care of ourselves,” Harari said, noting that the town has water and food supplies for all the residents for several days until it is able to evacuate the residents.

“We don’t have enough shelters for all the population here in the moshav,” he said. “Only 50% of the houses have some kind of shelter… and we have some general shelters.”

“This is an issue. It’s not easy,” Harari said.

Back in Ghajar, Khatib said that aside from the anti-tank guided missile attack, the atmosphere in the village had been tranquil.

“Everything has been calm here… I don’t know what the future will hold, but hopefully, there will be peace,” he said.

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