The villages along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon have become ghost towns, as most of their residents have already gone south. Army reservists have taken their place, on high alert and standing guard at the locked electronic gates of their communities and at new checkpoints along the roads.
Any civilians left in the villages on Wednesday were bracing for the possible opening of a new front. People rushed in and out of the few stores that remain open. With every rumble, eyes darted upward to scan the skies. The atmosphere bristled with fear.
“It’s terrifying,” said Michael Fakin, 33, who distributes newspapers and has lived most of his life in Shlomi, a working-class town of about 7,000 people close to the border with Lebanon. “It’s nerve-racking even to walk around my neighborhood,” he said, having just made a quick run to the only store that was open “for ice cream and caffeine.”
Around noon on Wednesday, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah took responsibility for firing an anti-tank missile at an Israeli military position at Arab Al Aramshe, an Israeli Bedouin border village in the western Galilee. Israeli aircraft responded by destroying a Hezbollah observation post. At dusk, sirens wailed all along the northern frontier amid rumors of swarms of drones entering Israeli airspace, setting the whole country on edge.
That, the military said, turned out to be a false alarm.
Israelis have long been dreading another war with Hezbollah, which has proved to be a formidable enemy in the past. A taut quiet has prevailed since the last conflict, in 2006, which began with a cross-border raid by Hezbollah and the abduction of two Israeli soldiers. It ended a month later, with some 165 Israelis dead, and more than 1,000 dead on the Lebanese side.
The expectation has been that Israel’s next all-out war would start here. Security officials have been warning for years that Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed group, has stockpiled tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, and that the next round of fighting could involve Hezbollah commandos infiltrating Israeli territory and capturing a village or two. Over the years, Israel has invested in bolstering its norther border defenses, building long concrete walls and digging deep ravines.
The surprise, however, came on Saturday when the Palestinian group Hamas, which controls Gaza, breached Israel’s southwestern border with the Palestinian enclave, overrunning about two dozen Israeli villages and towns, killing at least 1,200 civilians and soldiers, and taking scores back to Gaza as hostages.
The horrors of that day, the deadliest in Israel’s history, have only inspired new levels of anxiety among Israel’s battle-hardened citizens of the north, who worry about a similar fate.
Hamas has called on its allies to open a multi-front war against Israel. The Israeli government and President Biden have warned Hezbollah to stay out of the fray. The decision of the Biden administration to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group in the eastern Mediterranean and other assets in the region is a signal, experts say, to Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, that he would be taking on more than Israel if he joined in the conflict.
But after the colossal failure of Israeli intelligence and military preparedness on Saturday, few Israelis are complacent about Mr. Nasrallah’s calculations.
In addition to the events on Wednesday, Israeli forces on Tuesday thwarted gunmen from Lebanon near Arab Al Aramshe. Three Israeli soldiers were killed in the firefight, including a senior commander.
In such a jittery environment, any miscalculation by either side, experts say, could set off all-out war even if that was not the intention. In the meantime, Hezbollah’s steady drumbeat of provocations both signals solidarity with Hamas, and forces Israel to concentrate significant military resources in the north.
In Adamit, a small kibbutz, or collective village, up a winding road with corkscrew turns a few minutes’ drive from Arab Al Aramshe, there wasn’t a living soul in sight on Wednesday other than a force of reserve troops and a cat lazing under a car.
From the top of this wooded mountain, with spectacular panoramic views, a border wall can be seen looping in S-shapes along the hills, making it difficult to tell at times which side is Israel and which Lebanon.
In 2018, Israeli forces found a tunnel here, one of six that Hezbollah had built under the border and that Israel exposed. The area has historically been prone to terrorist infiltrations. In the 1970s and 1980s armed Palestinian groups took hostages, and killed adults and children in several shocking assaults on towns here.
Mr. Davidovich, the local council head, said on Wednesday that 80 percent of the residents living within four kilometers of the border had already evacuated voluntarily. Many have gone to the houses of relatives or friends, or to hotels in safer parts of the country.
“They went wherever they possibly could to get as far away from the border,” said David Vaknin, 70, from Shomera, another small border village, who had come to Shlomi to stock up on medications from the only pharmacy still open in the area.
He and his wife had not evacuated, he said, because they have a farm and animals to care for.
Most of the residents of Arab Al Aramshe have also gone. “I’m afraid for my children,” said Awni Ali, 29, speaking by telephone from his wife’s family’s village, Sheikh Danun, a bit further south, where they were sheltering.
But some young men have remained in Arab Al Aramshe, where an Israeli flag flies on a pole at the entrance of the village. They called for the state to arm them, or at least those who have performed military service, saying they wanted to defend their homes, or alternatively, for the authorities to send buses to take them to a hotel.
“He hates us, and we hate him,” Ahmad Mahamid, 20, a student who stayed behind, said of Mr. Nasrallah, explaining why the village would be a target.
“It’s frightening but we have nowhere to go,” Yazid Ali, 21, a cousin, added.
Mr. Davidovich, the council head, said thousands of older homes in the area lacked their own fortified safe rooms to protect people from incoming rocket fire when sirens go off — a situation he has been sounding the alarm about for years, he said. The council has organized the evacuation of Shlomi’s older residents, who find it difficult to run to public shelters.
Some residents said they were hoping that Hezbollah would stay out of the fray and that quiet would soon be restored.
But others saw the recent provocations and the Hamas assault as an opportunity for Israel to deal a blow to the menacing enemy to the north, whose positions are clearly visible from their bedroom windows.
“My dream is that there won’t be any more Hezbollah or Hamas, and that we will be able to walk across the border and have coffee with our neighbors,” said Juliette Levy, 48. “The quiet,” she said, “will come after the blow.”