Sirens or school bells: Evacuated northern students don’t know where they’ll be next fall

Authorities prepare new facilities for kids forced to leave homes due to Hezbollah fire; education officials also brace for possibility of war with Lebanon-based terror group

View of a large fire caused from rockets fired from Lebanon, outside the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, June 1, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)
View of a large fire caused from rockets fired from Lebanon, outside the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, June 1, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

In dozens of northern Israeli towns and villages that were evacuated under fire from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon, officials hope daily rocket warning sirens will give way to school bells by the time the academic year starts on September 1.

Of 60,000 civilians relocated from northern Israel at the outset of the war, 14,600 are children, scattered in temporary kindergartens and schools, or makeshift premises throughout the country’s interior.

Education Minister Yoav Kisch said Israel is spending $38 million building new kindergartens and schools just out of rocket range in the north, which can house the students if their original schools are not yet safe by September 1.

If the new buildings turn out not to be needed, other uses can be found for them.

“I’m hoping that this investment will not be used for the kids that live on the border,” he told Reuters in an interview.

It would take at least a month to prepare the abandoned northern schools, some of which are in towns that are rubble-strewn due to the Hezbollah attacks, for next year’s intake of pupils.

Smoke rises from a rocket fired from Lebanon into Northern Israel as it seen from the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona, May 5, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“So if we are going to see a solution by August 1, we know that we can start on September 1,” he said. Failing that, “we’re going to shift all our focus on to the other option.”

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis. So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 14 IDF soldiers and reservists.

The new school year has become a sort of deadline for the safe return of northern evacuees. It was also cited beginning early this year as the date for the return of southern evacuees, most of whom have now returned to their homes in the Gaza border area.

In April, it was reported that Netanyahu had responded dismissively to concerns raised in a cabinet meeting about northern evacuees remaining displaced into the coming school year: “So what if they return to their homes a few months after September?” the prime minister is reported to have said.

The comments stoked anger among residents of the north, who protested on Israel’s Independence Day, symbolically ‘seceding’ from the state and accusing the government of having “disengaged” from the region.

Netanyahu met with disaffected northern leaders in late May, vowing to restore security to the area but refusing to provide a date by which residents could expect to return, or clarify the government’s plans.

“I am not going to tell Hezbollah what we are going to do,” Netanyahu told the forum. “I am not going to share with our sworn enemy the dates and how we are going to do it.”

Damage to apartments from rockets fired by Hezbollah in Kiryat Shmona, northern Israel, on the border with Lebanon, February 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

‘A limit that we passed’

Dislocated and hard-put to do homework at the cramped accommodation provided to their families by the state, many of the children from the north are slipping, teachers say. Their high school dropout rate can reach 5%, according to Kisch — around double the national average.

Some of their parents are looking to resettle permanently, giving up on ever returning to their battered hometowns.

“I’m not sure that all the citizens of Kiryat Shmona will go back to Kiryat Shmona,” said Ofer Zafrani, principal of the border city’s Danziger High School, which relocated to a row of converted offices atop a multiplex cinema outside Tel Aviv.

“We understand this is the price we need to pay,” he told Reuters as pupils milled noisily around him. “But I think that there is a limit that we passed. It’s too much.”

In the south, even in communities alongside the Gaza Strip, some Israeli families have been able to return home as the army operates across the fence to suppress rocket fire. Zafrani said citizens in the north need a similar chance to go home.

“We must be back — and not only be back, but there has to be a solution for the situation for the north, like the south, so that we will feel safe,” Zafrani said.

Israeli flags decorate rooms of Israelis who evacuated from cities and towns along the border with Lebanon, in the Kibbutz Ginosar hotel, northern Israel, March 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Two fronts, intertwined

The exchanges of fire on Israel’s northern front, in parallel with the war in Gaza, have so far been contained without escalating into a major all-out cross-border war with Hezbollah, like the last one in 2006.

On the Lebanese side, 90,000 civilians have also been evacuated, around a third of them children, most now registered in new schools, according to United Nations figures.

Israel has threatened possibly imminent escalation to an invasion of Lebanon, while also leaving the door open to a US- or French-mediated truce in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701, passed to end hostilities at the end of the last war.

That resolution, which has been consistently violated, mandates that Hezbollah forces remain north of the Litani River, providing Israel a strategic buffer from attack by the Iran-backed terror group.

Touring the frontier on May 23, Netanyahu said Israel has “detailed, important, even surprising plans” for driving Hezbollah back, “but we don’t let the enemy in on these plans.”

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, who serves in the war cabinet with Netanyahu, also visited the north at the same time, in a separate armored cavalcade.

“I call on the government to commence preparations, already today, for us to return residents safely to their homes by September 1, whether through force or an accord,” Gantz said. “We must not allow another year to be lost in the north.”

The Lebanon and Gaza fronts are intertwined, as Hezbollah says it will keep shelling as long as Israel’s war on Hamas continues. Both groups are allies of Iran.

Israeli artillery unit firing shells near the Israeli border with Lebanon, northern Israel, January 15, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Promoting a Gaza truce, US President Joe Biden has dangled a knock-on benefit of quiet in southern Lebanon and northern Israel.

But some Israeli officials fear being boxed in: once northern residents return, Hamas might see an opportunity to strike again, calculating that Israel will not want to retaliate lest Hezbollah attacks resume and necessitate fresh evacuations.

Israelis also fear that something like the Hamas attack that started this war on October 7, in which thousands of terrorists poured into southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 251 hostages, could be replicated from the north if Hezbollah forces are not weakened or at least pushed back.

Israeli education officials say that they are thus also preparing for a far more disruptive scenario than continued evacuation: full-on war with Hezbollah.

That would likely put all of Israel under threat from the group’s rockets. Then, Kisch said, most of the country’s schools would be shuttered as civilians take shelter.

“If it will be a long process, there will be homeschooling as well,” said Kisch, who was Israel’s deputy health minister during the COVID lockdowns and remote-learning ordinances.

“But I hope that we’ll be able, with a very strong and effective war, to get this threat out of our way very fast.”

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