Wednesday, May 18th | 17 Iyyar 5782

April 21, 2021 4:53 pm

‘Sitting on a Powder Keg’: Residents of Israel’s North Warily Eye Border, Years After Hezbollah Tunnels Thwarted

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

An Israeli soldier stands in a Hezbollah tunnel that crosses from Lebanon to Israel, on the border between Israel and Lebanon in northern Israel, on May 29, 2019. Photo: Basel Awidat/Flash90.

Since Israel exposed Hezbollah’s best kept secret weapon – the Hezbollah cross-border attack tunnels – in 2018, the northern border between Israel and Lebanon has been relatively quiet. However, local residents living in communities along the northern border say they are still facing the day-to-day fears of the next cross-border attack by Iran’s proxy in Lebanon.

Israeli military forces on the northern border have been on high alert since a Hezbollah fighter was killed in July in an air strike in Syria, which was attributed to Israel, and with the terrorist group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah vowing retaliation. Over the past year, there have also been a series of infiltration incidents involving, among others, jobless Sudanese migrants moving across the border from Lebanon into Israel in search of work due to the ongoing Lebanese economic crisis.

“Local residents are living in a constant contradiction between completely normative lives with farmers cultivating their land, children going to kindergarten and being alert to the threat and fear that something will happen, but you don’t know when,” Sarit Zehavi, a retired Israel Defense Forces Lt. Col. — who lives in Kfar Havradim near the northern border, and studies Israel’s security challenges along the northern command as head of the Alma Research and Education Center — told The Algemeiner. “Whether or not Hezbollah gains profit from foreign workers breaching the border, what it shows is that someone can cross and even enter communities, which are a few feet away from the border security fence with Lebanon.”

“In one such incident, a resident of the Shlomi border town found a Sudanese migrant hiding behind their house after crossing the border. The next thought is, if he can cross, who else can and what does this mean about Hezbollah’s attempts that could put many lives in danger?” Zehavi added.

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Asked by The Algemeiner to describe the level of readiness by Israel’s military since the July tension, Zehavi assured that the IDF has undergone a change in the way the northern border is secured.

“Today the IDF has the capability of being more flexible in the way they patrol along the border with the usage of tanks versus regular vehicles to minimize the risk to soldiers and save their lives,” she added.

Touring Israel’s northern border with Lebanon on Tuesday, Israel Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned that “if Hezbollah challenges the IDF and the State of Israel — it will suffer very, very heavy consequences.”

“The IDF is ideally prepared along the entire northern command and on the Lebanese front. We are aware of Hezbollah’s attempts to challenge us, we are ready for any threat. Iran is behind them, which continues its regional activities, such as support for Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations,” Gantz said.

To protect from immediate threats, most communities along the northern border operate so-called local quick reaction squads, which are often the first to react and alert the IDF if they hear or see any suspicious border activity. The groups of at least 10 local residents are trained by the IDF and have arms to secure the border if necessary and to protect residents.

“You don’t know if someone who is crossing the border is a terrorist, a migrant or an animal but we need to protect our residents and we can’t wait for the IDF to arrive. We are taking Nasrallah’s threat very seriously,” said retired IDF Lieutenant Colonel Sorel Hershkovitz, who is on reserve duty along the northern border and is the community manager of Kibbutz Misgav-Am, located close to the Israeli-Lebanese border fence.

Hershkovitz — who lives with his family in Kibbutz Hanita, which he managed until October 2020 — said that the quick reaction squad is also familiar with everyone in their community and knows how to locate residents and organize them in cases of emergency.

The IDF launched “Operation Northern Shield” in December 2018 to destroy the Hezbollah terror tunnels, and following its completion reported that there were no longer any cross-border tunnels from Lebanon into Israel.

Many residents of the communities that sit on the Israeli-Lebanese border have stories upon stories about hearing digging noises below their houses, which the IDF initially didn’t appear to take seriously.

“It was like living in a bubble at the time while you could hear noise coming from underground. We were all talking about it,” said Yaniv Noema, a student who lived in the northern border town of Kiryat Shmona, which took its share of rocket fire during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. “We would hang out with friends having a coffee in Metula [Israel’s northernmost town] where we could see right across into Lebanon, how people live, their houses, it all seemed peaceful, while underground they were digging.”

Still today, some of the same residents who had been hearing the noise of the drilling fear that conceivably there could be more tunnels, according to Alma’s Zehavi.

The Algemeiner got a rare insight into the Ramya Hezbollah underground tunnel on the first northern border field trip held since the outbreak of the coronavirus, which was organized recently by Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry. Ramya is one of six Hezbollah tunnels that were built over a number of years as part of a project to take over the Kibbutzim along the border. It stretches along nearly one mile and is around 262 feet deep, and had already crossed into Israeli territory before it was uncovered by the IDF.

“Now whenever I visit the Hezbollah tunnel, it is not an easy sight and I am astonished time and time again by its depth and the deep hate of the enemy on the other side,” Zehavi said.

“To live in the communities along the border is like sitting on a powder keg which is waiting to be lit,” said Hershkovitz from Hanita. “That is not what is going to break us. We have lived here for many years. We are used to it and we won’t move from here.”

Hanita was one of the first Jewish communities in the Western Galilee, established as part of the “Tower and Stockade” project, led by the Haganah movement during the Arab Revolt in the 1930s in response to the Arab riots against Jewish communities.

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