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‘Sooner or Later, the Northern Front Will Erupt’
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‘Sooner or Later, the Northern Front Will Erupt’

As Hezbollah attacks escalate, frustration builds among the displaced residents of northern Israel.

Israel Defense Forces Lt. Col. Dotan Razili, a home front brigade commander, guards the evacuated northern community of Kibbutz Eilon near Israel's border with Lebanon. (Photo by Charlotte Lawson)

KIBBUTZ EILON, Israel—A mile south of Lebanon and directly off of Israel’s winding Route 899 sits Kibbutz Eilon, one of many northern communities abandoned by its residents amid attacks by Hezbollah in the days after October 7. That conflict, like the one Israel is waging against Hamas in the south, has now stretched on for more than seven months.

So too has the displacement of tens of thousands of Israelis from their homes along the border with Lebanon. In Eilon, typically home to 1,100 people, Lt. Col. Dotan Razili has guarded over his neighbors’ empty houses since their occupants fled. Some of his days consist of feeding the local cats and removing spoiled produce from refrigerators, while others, like the day of my recent visit, are punctuated by the sounds of heavy nearby rocket and missile fire from the Iran-backed terrorist group based in Lebanon.

“No Western country can allow militants waiting by the border, trying to attack its civilians. Nobody can allow it, and we won’t allow it,” said the home front brigade commander, adding that a diplomatic or military solution must be reached to allow northern residents to return home. “We’re ready to go into Lebanon, if called by the government, to push Hezbollah back ourselves. Usually the military likes this solution better.”

The clock on a diplomatic resolution is ticking, as Hezbollah’s near-daily attacks intensify and evacuated Israelis demand answers about the fate of their communities. On Tuesday, Israel’s Independence Day, hundreds of northern residents blocked off intersections in the northeast in protest of the government’s inability to reach either a diplomatic or military solution to their ongoing displacement. 

“For seven months, business owners have been collapsing. … People don’t know what to do with themselves because they’re so full of despair and frustration,” said Moshe Davidovich, head of a regional council governing border communities who attended the demonstrations. “For seven months the feeling of security has been damaged and Hezbollah is shooting and hitting in every direction.”

The same day, Hezbollah anti-tank missile attacks near Adamit—a kibbutz just up the mountain from Eilon—killed one civilian and wounded five soldiers. On Wednesday night, the Iranian-backed militants conducted their deepest strike into Israeli territory yet, claiming a drone attack at a military base more than 20 miles from the border with Lebanon, near the Sea of Galilee. And on Thursday morning, Hezbollah fired dozens of rockets indiscriminately at the Upper Galilee and Golan heights. Later that day, three Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops were injured in Metula, a town on the border with Lebanon, by a drone Hezbollah claimed was armed with missiles—the first such attack of its kind.

“No Western country can allow militants waiting by the border, trying to attack its civilians. Nobody can allow it, and we won’t allow it.”

Lt. Col. Dotan Razili

Rocket fire continued into Friday, and on Saturday, the north experienced the largest number of air raid sirens yet this year, as Hezbollah launched at least 15 separate rocket and drone attacks across the border. The militants also fired drones at Israel throughout the day on Sunday, intensifying their attacks in the evening as news broke that a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian had crashed in northwest Iran. After search teams located the downed aircraft in dense fog and mountainous terrain early Monday morning, Iranian state media confirmed that all nine passengers aboard had been killed. The cause of the crash is still unknown.

Owing to its Iranian backers, the group currently boasts an arsenal of some 150,000 drones, rockets, and missiles. In addition to launching retaliatory attacks against Hezbollah weapons depots, fighters, and launch sites across the border, Israel has countered this threat by striking the weapons as they’re en route from Iran to Lebanon—and the people responsible for their movement. In the most high profile example of the war so far, the IDF killed Mohammad Reza Zahedi—a high-ranking Iranian commander directly responsible for fueling Hezbollah’s ongoing attacks on Israel—in a strike in Damascus last month. It also targets Hezbollah military leaders, most recently killing Hezbollah field commander Hussain Ibrahim Mekky on Wednesday. 

For residents of northern Israel, each escalation by Hezbollah instills new fear for their vacant and vulnerable communities. Anti-tank missiles—which are difficult to intercept and whose mobile launchers are easy to conceal in wooded areas—have proved a particular menace, as Hezbollah uses the weapons to level empty and inhabited homes and target military bases. Explosive drones, likewise, pose a lethal challenge to Israeli troops in the region by evading the country’s air defenses. Eighteen soldiers have been killed on the northern front since October 7, an IDF official told The Dispatch

Staff and patients at Galilee Medical Center’s underground neonatal intensive care unit in its facility 6 miles south of the Israel-Lebanon border. (Photo by Charlotte Lawson)

Galilee Medical Center—a 775-bed hospital 6 miles south of the border with Lebanon—has treated a few hundred of the troops and civilians injured in the attacks, including the 17 people injured, one fatally, in a drone strike on Arab al-Aramshe last month. As the closest hospital in Israel to any border, the center in Nahariya adopted a novel approach at the beginning of the war: moving its operations to an existing facility underground.

Construction on the sprawling subterranean complex began some 40 years before October 7, but has been put to use in the months since, with more than half of the hospital’s available beds now below ground. In the neonatal intensive care unit, the first ward to move underground, nurses and doctors speak in whispers and attend to the newborns in near-darkness. “It’s unusual,” Dr. Vered Fleisher Sheffer, manager of the ward, told The Dispatch. “We are used to sunshine and daylight.” 

On ground level, but built as a fully protected bomb shelter, are the hospital’s trauma centers—the second of which opened after the war’s start. Galilee, in addition to treating patients currently affected by the war, is now prepared for a bigger escalation with Hezbollah—including one involving sustained rocket and missile attacks. In case of a mass casualty event, the hospital needs to be prepared to accommodate a large influx of people amid inevitable electrical blackouts. 

A reflective vest for the Galilee Medical Center’s mass casualty coordinator is draped over a chair. (Photo by Charlotte Lawson)

The underground complex first proved its usefulness during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, during which northern Israel came under sustained aerial barrages for a month. At the time, Dr. Tsvi Sheleg was working as a surgeon in the ophthalmology unit when it was hit by a rocket that destroyed four of its rooms, which could accommodate 12 patients. 

“They didn’t die, because the hospital had been evacuated to the underground facilities,” Sheleg, now deputy director general of the center, told The Dispatch. “Since then, it’s mandatory in Israel—every hospital needs an underground facility.”

In coordination with Home Front Command, the hospital also runs drills to prepare for the prospect of another all-out war with Hezbollah. Many Israelis, including Sheleg, think such a conflict looks increasingly inevitable with no deal for the terrorist group’s voluntary withdrawal from the border in sight and northern communities uprooted. 

“The settlements along the border have been evacuated,” he said. “We cannot afford that, we cannot allow that. Sooner or later, the northern front will erupt.”

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.