Is it more terrifying to know your enemies are there but not be able to see them, or to stare daily into the wild eyes of the men who plan your execution? This is the question I pondered as I stood near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon last week.
The view from Israel’s north looks quite different than it did before the Second Lebanon War in 2006. As bad as the press was for Israel after that war, Hezbollah was so decimated by Israel’s counteroffensive that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitted that had he known Israel would strike back as it did, he would probably not have launched the war.
And now, where once Hezbollah commandos strutted around the border in combat fatigues with guns slung over their shoulders, they only go outside in street clothes. And while pre-2006 the Hezbollah military installations stood as concrete expressions of defiance, they are now all under or inside of civilian residential buildings.
But while that may represent a moral victory, does it bring any sense of reassurance to Israelis living in the north?
“Everybody deserves the right to live; the problem is that they don’t want us to live,” a young man named Yair told me. “Hezbollah is an example. They want to destroy us. We don’t want to fight; we just want to be in peace. But we don’t have a choice.”
Knowing that I was American–I was there on a weeklong media fellowship with Act for Israel–Yair was clearly speaking simple Hebrew for my benefit. But it was telling that perhaps his phrasing was appropriate. Was there really anything missing from his formulation?
There are now, according to the IDF, 40,000 rockets in Hezbollah’s possession south of Lebanon’s Litani River, which at its closest point comes to within four kilometers of the Israeli border. In the last war, rockets rained on Israel’s port city and economic and population center of Haifa. The city is home to over 265,000 Israelis, but another 300,000 live in adjacent towns.
Another important number is 1 million–that’s how many Israelis live north of Haifa and who, presumably, the rockets stockpiled in the Lebanese village of Al Khiam are intended for. Al Khiam sits four kilometers from the Israeli border as well, and the center of the village is home to at least eleven weapons depots. One is right next to a mosque, another is right next to a school. Both medical centers are within a few hundred feet of weapons depots. A second school is exactly 132 meters from another weapons depot. One bunker is situated about 100 meters from a school on one side and a mosque on the other.
This is Hezbollah. The world’s most feared and resilient terrorist organization, funded by Iran and running a state within a state in Lebanon (and on the verge of controlling the state of Lebanon as well) is also a machine churning out cowardice on a daily basis, as it puts both Lebanon’s and Israel’s civilians at risk. It’s entire strategy for war with Israel consists of using human shields. And why not? The media plays along.
“Israel kills [Arab] children. That’s what they’ll say,” Yuval, from the northern town of Poriyya, tells me. I asked him whether Israel is capable of defending herself from the onslaught that everyone I spoke to believes is coming–and soon.
“She can defend herself, but we are too worried what the world will think about us,” he responds.
It is here where Israeli confidence and cynicism meet. Israelis are always sure their army can win the war, but are less sure their leaders will respond as soon as they are attacked.
“When it falls in Tel Aviv,” Yuval says, referring to the rockets, “then Israel will take [action]. I don’t think they care when it falls down here.” But Israel responded when the rockets fell in Haifa, I said. Yuval brushes that aside. “When it falls in Tel Aviv, it’s like the center of Israel. And it symbolizes something.”
I think that response has a poetic element to it. He thinks it’s just realism, straight up. “It’s like when rockets fall in Sderot,” he tells me, offering me the answer he and I both knew was coming at some point. “For eight years they fall down every day and no one cared about it. For eight years.”
And this is more than frustration. This is a real fear. I ask him if he thinks another war is coming soon. “Yes, of course,” he answers. Is there a sense of nervousness among Israelis, especially those living in the north? “Yes, of course.”
Yuval’s concern is more common, of course, in the north. Yair told me something similar. He said the leaders don’t know how to solve the problem of Hezbollah. But it was the language he used that caught my attention. He used the phrase lo bnuyim in Hebrew. Bnuyim means build, and is often used to describe a sense of maturity or readiness. When Yair uses lo bnuyim to describe his leaders, he is wondering whether they are built for this.
Regardless, everyone I spoke to is certain that the Israeli leadership will strike back and that the IDF will win. It’s only a matter of when, they say, and at what cost. They have no doubt Israel’s governing coalition will defend the state. I was here when Kadima was in charge in 2006, and there simply wasn’t this confidence. Something about the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition with Ehud Barak as defense minister projects a toughness Israelis both like and relate to.
Part of the distress in the north is the feeling that the rockets are there to deter an Israeli strike on Iran. If someone–Israel most likely, but anyone really–attacks Iran, Israelis in the north expect the rockets to come fast and furious in response. Therefore, not only must they think about a possible future war with Hezbollah, but they must also confront the question of whether the existence of those rockets will enable Iran to go nuclear. Which is worse? Does it even matter?
“You can make peace with a snake? You can sleep with a snake?” Yosi Levy asks me rhetorically as we sit behind the counter in his kiosk along the boardwalk in Tiberias. Levy likes to speak in allegories.
Hezbollah doesn’t want land, he reminds me, as the Palestinians can at least claim. They just want the Jews dead, and they only understand force. So there will be war.
Levy is no stranger to war in Lebanon. He served in the IDF in south Lebanon in 1982, when Israel went in to root out the PLO. He pulls up his pant leg slightly and points to a three-inch scar on the right side of his ankle, then turns his foot and shows a similar scar on the other side. It’s where the bullet entered and where it exited his leg.
“It’s a present from the Palestinians,” he says.
I ask Levy if Israel is ready to defend herself. Yes, he says without hesitation. I ask him how he knows there will be war again. He tells me the story of the frog and the scorpion, pointing to the water nearby.
The scorpion finds the frog on the shore, about to swim to the island in the middle of the water. He asks the frog for a ride, since the scorpion obviously can’t swim. The frog responds that he thinks the scorpion will sting him–he is a scorpion, after all. The scorpion counters that if he stings the frog, they’ll both go under, and therefore the concept of mutually assured destruction will prevent him from stinging the frog. So the frog agrees. Halfway to the island, the scorpion stings the frog. As they’re going under, the frog shoots the scorpion a hurt and betrayed look.
Levy pauses before offering the scorpion’s response, clearly intended to represent Israel’s Arab enemies, and which he delivers with a smile: “I’m a scorpion, what did you expect, I’d kiss you?”