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Besides Israel's war in Gaza, there's a possible wider front with Lebanon

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a glimpse now of the low-level war along Israel's northern border. If you look on a map far away from Gaza, you see a finger of Israel that pokes upward alongside Lebanon. Israel's army has been exchanging fire for months with Hezbollah across the Lebanese border. Hezbollah is an ally of Hamas. Recent violence in Lebanon, the killing of a Hamas leader who was staying there, has added to concerns that the fighting on the border could grow more intense. NPR's Lauren Frayer is on that border up in that far northern part of Israel. Hi there, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Where exactly are you there?

FRAYER: I'm at a roadside gas station that's absolutely swarming with Israeli soldiers. In front of me is a hill where the other side of the hill is Lebanon, about two miles as the crow flies. The Israeli military has closed roads beyond the point where I'm standing. It says it struck a bunch of targets on the other side of this border overnight, including what it calls a Hezbollah military compound. In the past day that I've been here, there have been warplanes buzzing overhead, booms of outgoing weaponry on the Israeli side, air raid sirens on this side.

In the town of Kiryat Shmona near here, residential neighborhoods have been hit by rockets, presumably fired by Hezbollah. I saw big gaping holes in the sides of houses. But compared to the south of Israel and to Gaza certainly, there have been few casualties here because the area has been largely evacuated of civilians. Tens of thousands of people have relocated from their neighborhoods here to hotels farther south in Israel that have been paid for by the Israeli government. But there is no mandatory evacuation on the Lebanese side of this border. And there have been a lot of casualties from Israeli strikes there.

INSKEEP: Lauren, I just want to note that there has been fire across this border since October. What gives a sense now that things could get worse?

FRAYER: There's fear of just an all-out ground invasion from either side. The area's swarming with soldiers. There are way more soldiers than civilians here. I talked to an Israeli officer, a second lieutenant, who says the mood is really jumpy. Like, some of his troops are eager for action, but he's cognizant that, you know, one overstep, one shot fired, and this could be a new front and a wider regional war. Here is a scene I collected last night in the nearby town of Kiryat Shmona. Let's have a listen.

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With the town around it mostly evacuated and warplanes buzzing overhead, this shawarma restaurant, about a mile from the Lebanon border, is doing a surprisingly swift trade.

TOBY ABUTBUL: We have the same routine, but more soldiers, less civilians.

FRAYER: Toby Abutbul, a former Israeli soldier himself, runs this place with his dad.

ABUTBUL: We will not let the soldiers stay hungry, you understand? They keep us safe.

FRAYER: While Israel withdraws thousands of soldiers from Gaza, deployments northward to guard the Lebanon border are keeping this man in business. Most civilians evacuated this region three months ago, fearing what happened in the south with Hamas militants crossing the border from Gaza might happen here, too, with Hezbollah militants crossing from Lebanon. There has been no major ground invasion so far, but near-daily rocket fire from Hezbollah.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: OK, so a rocket came over this hill.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: From this way, yes.

FRAYER: Lebanon is on the other side of this hill.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, yeah.

FRAYER: Came over here and hit this house right here - second floor, three-foot-wide hole in the side of the house. Wow, the window is still intact. That's incredible.

(SOUNDBITE OF WARPLANES FLYING)

FRAYER: Israeli tanks, artillery and airstrikes have hit southern Lebanon in response, and last week it's believed to have reached even farther into Lebanon with an airstrike in Beirut that killed a top Hamas leader. Israeli officials have not explicitly claimed responsibility for that attack, but it's prompted a barrage of additional rocket fire from Hezbollah.

DAVID ITKIN: Politicians and society, everybody is saying that Nasrallah is making speeches and making...

FRAYER: David Itkin is the only member of his family who did not evacuate his hometown of Kiryat Shmona near the border. He stayed behind to work overtime in a factory, but he's also been glued to speeches on TV. He referred there to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, who has vowed to respond to last week's assassination in Beirut, quote, "on the battlefield," which may be right here. The Israeli military's chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, said Sunday that it's his duty to make this border region safe for Israelis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERZI HALEVI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "We'll do that with rising pressure," he said, "or we will do that with another war." Air raids are so common along this border that Cecilia El-Ousi just moved into the bomb shelter under her apartment building.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SQUEAKING)

CECILIA EL-OUSI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: So it's an underground bunker with a massive, thick, like, metal door that kind of has a big bolt in it - and six bunk beds, a blanket on the floor for the dogs, and this is your home for three months.

EL-OUSI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "I fell and broke my teeth rushing down stairs in some of the early air raids," she says. "I was so scared, so now I'm just living down here," she says, "underground." El-Ousi refuses to evacuate no matter what, even with the booms of Israeli weaponry echoing behind her apartment block. Her neighbor has a different take, though. Oz Vaknin has already evacuated. He's staying with family farther south, but he came back to grab some stuff. And when he comes home, he says he feels...

OZ VAKNIN: Like, pain because of what's happening in my city. It feel lonely, not feel good (laughter), not feel like home.

FRAYER: He's got two months left on his lease here, then he's decided to move away for good. What would it take for him not to uproot his life?

VAKNIN: If the war with Nasrallah and Hezbollah is over, then maybe. But it is not beginning (laughter).

FRAYER: It hasn't even begun yet?

VAKNIN: No.

FRAYER: The kind of war he's talking about, a full ground war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, it's happened before, most recently in 2006. And it's what everyone here worries may happen again.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lauren Frayer talking with Israelis who've evacuated and who are living underground. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to the region. And, Lauren, what can he do?

FRAYER: He's got a lot on his plate. He's been meeting regional leaders, trying to drum up support for the rebuilding of Gaza after the war there ends. When he lands here in Israel, he's expected to push Israeli leaders to curtail their widespread bombing of Gaza. There are signs that may actually already be happening. The Israeli defense minister has said with the withdrawal of thousands of Israeli troops from Gaza, the military is refocusing on more targeted special ops missions there. There are some Israeli military supply trucks rolling past behind me. I don't know if you can hear that.

INSKEEP: I can.

FRAYER: Blinken has - is worried about this border where I am. He says he's worried this conflict could, quote, "metastasize" and that a new front could kick off right here.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lauren Frayer in northern Israel. Thanks so much.

FRAYER: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Lauren Frayer
Lauren Frayer covers South Asia for NPR News. In 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.