As fighting grinds on in Gaza, some Israelis in the north want a war with Hezbollah
LEHAVOT HABASHAN, Israel — It's a spring-like day in the Upper Galilee region, a strip of northern Israeli territory between Lebanon and the Golan Heights.
Raanan Momika is working in his mountain bike shop in a kibbutz called Lehavot Habashan.
This afternoon — and for weeks since Hamas' Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel — there are no customers, no tourists interested in guided trips through the rolling hills. The kibbutz itself appears almost empty.
"Because of the war now it's a bad situation, we don't have customers, nobody wants to come," he says.
This region is viewed by many Israelis as a Vermont-like escape from the bustle and churn of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There are beautiful farms and kibbutzim, lush scenery and a slower pace of life.
But now Israel's government has evacuated more than 40 communities in this area, because of the threat of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia that operates nearby across the Lebanon border.
More than 60,000 people were required to leave their homes. Many other families, including Momika's neighbors, left voluntarily.
Those who've been ordered to go are receiving government subsidies; many others say they're receiving no aid.
"Now we are just half people here in the kibbutz," he says. "We're just living day-to-day. I'm not afraid if you ask me."
For decades people here say they grew used to regular rocket, artillery and sniper fire exchanged between Israel's military and Hezbollah.
Now the fear is that Hezbollah could send fighters across the border to raid homes and take prisoners, as Hamas did in the south.
Asked if he thinks about leaving, as so many others have done, Momika pauses then says, "No, not yet, not yet. It's my place. My home, I was born here."
A risky frontier, a call for for war against Hezbollah
From the time the kibbutz began in the 1950s, Israelis who settled here faced hostility and tension from some Palestinian and other Arab neighbors, current residents say.
"My grandfather and grandmother were like pioneers," says Ziv Marom, who runs a coffee shop in the kibbutz that's also mostly empty now.
"They decided to build a kibbutz on the northern border, which was very dangerous. The Arabs didn't want them here."
There were full-scale wars fought on this frontier in the 1980s and again in 2006. Both sides regularly trade artillery and sniper fire.
After Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel, there's been more shooting, more rockets. Marom says the war seems to have ended a hopeful chapter for his community.
"The Galil is the most beautiful place in Israel," Marom says, using the Hebrew name for the region. "It was developing, developing, developing. It was crazy how beautiful it was. Now people who live in kibbutz near the border are not planning to come back."
Marom says he's chosen to stay but he understands why families, especially with children, are leaving.
"It could be the same, the same event here in the north," he says, before suggesting that an attack here could be even worse than Oct. 7, when Hamas-led militants killed 1,200 people and took more than 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials. "Hezbollah is a stronger army than Hamas."
When I ask what Israel should do to give them back their sense of safety, Marom voices an idea shared with NPR by people in the north over and over: Many want a full-scale war against Hezbollah.
"I know now we have to crush them and crush them big time," he says. "They understand power and that's what we need to show, because we have power."
Israel has fought with Lebanon before
Not all Israelis share the view that a wider conflict will lead to more security.
And the United States and other countries are scrambling to contain the conflict, hoping to limit it to Gaza and the already bloody fight between Israel and Hamas.
Israel has battled forces in Lebanon before, including in 1982 and in 2006, leaving many casualties. Another war there could have a heavy toll and risk broadening into a wider regional conflict, analysts warn.
In the 2006 conflict, 1,300 Lebanese and 165 Israelis were killed. "A new war will dwarf that of 2006 because of the much-improved military capabilities of Hezbollah and of the extreme right leanings of Israel's ruling politicians," Bilal Saab, a Middle East security analyst, wrote last month for the Chatham House think tank.
In the Upper Galilee, meanwhile Israeli solders like Zohar Ben Shushan say the danger posed by Hezbollah has escalated, threatening the entire region.
"We think that they have a lot of power and more ways to attack us and hurt our community here in the north," says Ben Shushan, age 24, a reservist from the northern city of Haifa. "So it really feels like protecting my home."
Ben Shushan is based at a forward lookout post that serves as one of the closest defensive positions Israel's army maintains on the Lebanon border.
Lebanese villages, also largely abandoned because of the fighting, are visible a short distance away.
NPR has sent reporters to those towns to speak to Lebanese who've chosen to remain. Many feel that without Hezbollah protecting them, Israel would invade Lebanon as it's done in the past.
Israeli soldiers, meanwhile, view Hezbollah fighters as a daily threat, well armed and organized.
On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a warning to the group.
"If Hezbollah chooses to start an all-out war," he said, "it will single-handedly turn Beirut and southern Lebanon into Gaza and Khan Younis."
Khan Younis is a city in the Gaza Strip heavily damaged by Israeli airstrikes and ground operations.
"Sometimes it's scary," Ben Shushan says. "One time I was in the shower and the shooting started. They really can attack you anytime."
Many Israelis who consider the Upper Galilee home told NPR the Israeli army's presence is comforting but not enough. They say the border is too big, too porous to defend reliably.
In the city of Nazareth, a 90-minute drive away from the frontier, people evacuated from northern communities are being housed by the government in hotels.
Five weeks in a hotel, thinking of leaving for good
"We are here already five weeks, a little bit more than 300 people," says Erez Bergman from the Kibbutz Snir. His entire community is here, men, women and a lot of kids, including his own.
He says after seeing what happened during the Hamas attack, and how slow Israel's army was to respond, he's thinking about leaving the north for good to protect his family.
"Yes, sadly but yes. I won't put my children in a position where they are harmed," he says.
Bergman too says there's only one thing that will make him feel safe returning home. He wants a full-scale war that will destroy Hezbollah, as Israel says it is now trying to do to Hamas with its military operations in Gaza.
"We will fight very hard Hezbollah. That's the only option — it's not a good option but if we want to go home and feel that there's nobody near the border that can threaten us or our children, that's the only solution."
Many of the Israelis in the north interviewed by NPR voiced impatience with their government for not already striking harder against Hezbollah.
Others predicted that as soon as the fight with Hamas is over in the south, Israel's military will turn its attention here to the Lebanese border.
NPR's Eleanor Beardsley contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.