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Northern Israel a ‘waking nightmare’ amid efforts to push Hezbollah from border, says resident and security analyst

Israel has some hope France, U.S. can convince the Iran-backed terrorists to retreat, but northern Israel residents fear a repeat of Oct. 7 as Hezbollah continues to attack, Sarit Zehavi tells JI

On Oct. 7, as Israelis and Jews across the world watched Hamas’ massacre with horror, Sarit Zehavi opened a map.

“The first thing I did when I heard Hamas entered Ofakim is to look at how far it is from the Gaza border,” Zehavi told Jewish Insider this week. “It’s 12 kilometers [7.5 miles] away. I live 9 kilometers [5.6 miles] from the Lebanon border.”

Zehavi is the founder and president of the Alma Research and Education Center, where she and her team research and write about security on Israel’s northern border. Alma’s headquarters are in Tefen in the Western Galilee, just a few minutes drive from her home.

As she hears the daily booms of battle between Israel and Hezbollah, and the U.S. and France try to persuade Lebanon to force the Iran-backed terrorist group to retreat north of the Litani River about 29 kilometers (18 miles) from the Israel-Lebanon border, Zehavi is worried that Israel is making a “big mistake.”

The U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 1701 in August 2006, putting the Second Lebanon War to an end. 

The resolution calls for “the establishment between the Blue Line” – the demarcation line between Israel and Lebanon – “and the Litani river of an area free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of [the UN Interim Force in Lebanon]…deployed in this area…There will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than of the Lebanese State.” The Lebanese government “authorizes UNIFIL to take all necessary action…to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind,” the resolution continues.

But not only did Hezbollah continue to hoard weapons and grow its arsenal in the subsequent 17 years, while getting on-the-ground military experience in the Syrian Civil War, the Iran-backed terror group continued to entrench itself in the Lebanese government, in parliament and as part of the governing coalition. Hezbollah streamed more and more terrorists onto the Lebanon-Israel border, digging tunnels and even crossing into Israel, and UNIFIL did not stop them. Israel noted this annually at the U.N. Security Council meetings reviewing the resolution, to no avail.

After Oct. 7, the world watched to see if Hezbollah would join its fellow member of the Iran-backed “Axis of Resistance” in attacking Israel. President Biden’s one-word warning to other adversaries not to get involved (‘Don’t’) and the U.S. aircraft carrier moved into the region deterred Hezbollah from launching a full-scale war, but air-raid sirens go off almost daily in Israel’s north, with the Iranian proxy militia frequently shooting rockets and missiles. Israelis living in the towns closest to the border have been evacuated.

Hezbollah shot at least six rockets into Israel on Sunday morning, and the IDF responded with artillery fire. Hezbollah warned that Israel had significantly escalated its airstrikes, with the Lebanese newspaper Nidaa al-Watan claiming that “an entire neighborhood has been destroyed” in the town of Aitaroun near the border with Israel.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a briefing on Monday that “one of our goals from the beginning of this conflict has been to prevent it from widening and that, of course, includes widening from northern Israel into Lebanon. We have had conversations about that with the Israeli government and said that we very much do not want to see the conflict widen…We would support steps that would achieve that goal.”

Israel has called on its international allies to ensure Lebanese compliance with Resolution 1701 to avoid a war. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen wrote a letter to the U.N. Security Council and mentioned it when U.K. Foreign Secretary David Cameron and other foreign dignitaries visited Israel. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant noted the importance of implementing the resolution to his French counterpart, Sebastien Lecornu, in a call last month. 

Meanwhile, France and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. have been using diplomatic channels in Lebanon to try to get Hezbollah to back away from the border. A senior French security and intelligence delegation visited Lebanon and Israel late last month in an attempt to stabilize the situation.

Asked about a possible agreement with Hezbollah about a buffer zone in southern Lebanon, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a briefing on Monday that “one of our goals from the beginning of this conflict has been to prevent it from widening and that, of course, includes widening from northern Israel into Lebanon. We have had conversations about that with the Israeli government and said that we very much do not want to see the conflict widen…We would support steps that would achieve that goal.”

Sarit Zehavi, the founder and CEO of the Alma Research and Education Center, said U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 “is not really a system that can bring security to the residents of northern Israel and southern Lebanon.”

Gallant told a group of mayors and local council leaders from the north last week that a diplomatic arrangement enforcing Resolution 1701 would be ideal, but barring that Israel will “act with all the means at its disposal” to force Hezbollah north of the Litani River so that Israelis can return to their homes near the border safely.

A source in the Prime Minister’s Office told JI this week that “clearly, the reality after the war needs to be different. Thousands of people who were evacuated will need to be able to return to their homes with a sense of security – they will have such a sense when there is security.”

One way of bringing security to the north, the PMO source said, “is to implement 1701 or something similar, that would verify Hezbollah and any other terrorist organization is north of the Litani.” 

There is not much hope among officials in Jerusalem that diplomacy will work, but several told JI they’re willing to try. Israeli retaliatory strikes in southern Lebanon since Oct. 7 may have improved the chances of Hezbollah retreating north of the Litani, in part because Israel destroyed some of the terrorists’ positions, and in part because of increasing pressure within Lebanon. 

While the Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported that Israel set a deadline for the diplomatic efforts to push Hezbollah back from the border, an Israeli diplomatic source told JI that there has not been an ultimatum, though it’s clear that the current situation is unsustainable and residents of border towns cannot remain evacuated for months on end.

There is some support in Lebanon, as well, for pushing Hezbollah north of the Litani. Samy Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb – a party representing the country’s Christian minority, which has cooperated with Israel in the past – emphasized “the necessity of protecting Lebanon from all conflicts in the region and promoting the implementation of international resolutions, particularly Resolution 1701, to prevent the conflict from spreading to Lebanon.” Gemayel made the remarks on Sunday at an event of the American Lebanese Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., attended by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA).

Zehavi, the Alma founder, is not opposed to diplomatic efforts, but she said that basing them on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 is “very dangerous.”

The resolution “is not really a system that can bring security to the residents of northern Israel and southern Lebanon,” she said. “It’s not clear from the resolution who is supposed to enforce it; Israel says it’s UNIFIL and the rest of the world says it’s the Lebanese Army. It’s worded problematically and everyone reads it differently…The Lebanese Army doesn’t enforce it and UNIFIL doesn’t help. That’s the situation on the ground.” 

“There is no functioning state in Lebanon to enforce it. Iranians are everywhere and Hezbollah is everywhere, in the institutions of the state, controlling the borders and the airport,” she added.

If Israel thinks calling for the enforcement of Resolution 1701 will help, “we’re fooling ourselves,” Zehavi said.

“The resolution could have been fulfilled for 17 years,” she said. Instead, “it allowed Hezbollah to get significantly stronger.” 

Even if Israel is allowing the diplomatic process to run its course to have greater legitimacy if a war breaks out in the north, Israel is not doing enough to draw attention to Hezbollah’s constant violations of Resolution 1701, Zehavi argued. 

“We [the Alma Center] are the ones doing it. We publicized Hezbollah’s actions in Lebanon…but I’m sure the IDF has much more information,” she said.

Interviewed four years ago, Zehavi was adamant that she saw growing threats across the Lebanon border that others discounted.

“There are tons of think tanks doing excellent work either in Washington, D.C., or Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. But we see the borders every day. We see the changes. Everything that is happening affects us and our family and friends,” she said at the time.

“Every day, 10 anti-tank missiles are shot. That does not make sense. Neither does one missile a week,” Zehavi said. “We can’t leave an opening like that – an opening for [missiles] is an opening for a massacre.”

So much so that Zehavi only hires locals to work for Alma: “Only people who live here can understand. Something happens here every day. It’s a part of our life.”

This week, when asked if she relates to the IDF intelligence officers and lookouts who warned of a Hamas attack and were ignored, Zehavi said that the Alma Center reported in the past that Hezbollah planned an invasion of northern Israeli towns much like the one in Israel’s south on Oct. 7.

“Every day, 10 anti-tank missiles are shot. That does not make sense. Neither does one missile a week,” she said. “We can’t leave an opening like that – an opening for [missiles] is an opening for a massacre.”

Residents of the north fear that when the country is no longer on high alert, Hezbollah terrorists will cross the border and murder scores of Israelis like Hamas did, Zehavi said. 

“We’re very scared and very worried. We don’t sleep well at night,” she said. “It’s unreasonable that [the government] will only understand our security needs once something happens… Residents of the north won’t compromise or risk that the same thing will happen to us. It’s not like Hezbollah is more humanitarian or moral. Hezbollah has the same culture of death as Hamas.”

Zehavi and her family were not evacuated as residents of towns abutting the border were, but she can “hear all the battles” between Israel and Hezbollah from her home. It may not be official, but “the northern border is at war,” she said.

“It’s not a normal life. I open my eyes every morning and say the nightmare is when we’re awake, not when we’re asleep,” she said.

Jewish Insider Washington correspondent Gabby Deutch contributed reporting.

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