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A Nice, Relaxing Weekend in the Sights of Hezbollah

Dispatch from the border, 10 years after the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War. How long until the next war—inevitably—begins?

Neri Zilber
July 12, 2016
Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
An Israeli mobile artillery unit prepares to fire 155mm shells towards Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon, July 13, 2006, at a military staging area along the northern Israeli border with Lebanon.Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
An Israeli mobile artillery unit prepares to fire 155mm shells towards Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon, July 13, 2006, at a military staging area along the northern Israeli border with Lebanon.Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The Blue Line tzimer in this small moshav in northern Israel has many amenities: large flat-screen television, leather sectional couch, billiards table, barbecue pit. Outside, the modern villa has a private pool, Jacuzzi, and hot tub—with a view. As the name suggests, the Blue Line tzimer is located just steps from the Israeli-Lebanese border, known in diplomatic speak as the “Blue Line.” From the comfort of the hot tub a guest can relax, drink in hand, and stare directly across the valley at the Lebanese village of Marwahin, dominated by Israel’s arch-foe, Hezbollah.

Such is the reality on Israel’s border with Lebanon a decade after the 34-day war with Hezbollah that erupted this week in 2006: a “deceptive quiet,” in the words of one long-time Zar’it resident, coupled with large-scale preparations on both sides of the Blue Line for what many believe will be the inevitable, and even more destructive, next round. Sitting in a hot tub in clear sniper range of Hezbollah may not seem like the ideal weekend getaway, let alone an everyday occurrence, but locals accept life on this geopolitical fault line with a stoic shrug.

Lynne Maman was born in Cornwall, England, and helped found Zar’it nearly 50 years ago. Now a feisty mother of nine, she takes care of her ailing father and makes a living in the dusty moshav raising chickens and selling eggs. “We moved here because we thought it was important to settle in every part of Eretz Israel—from the very north to the very south,” she says in a crisp British accent immune to decades of living in the Middle East. She holds forth with stories of a simpler time, years ago, when relations with the Lebanese farmers across the border were peaceful and neighborly. There wasn’t even a real border fence to speak of. “This used to be a farm on the edge of Israel; now it’s a fortification,” she says.

‘This used to be a farm on the edge of Israel; now it’s a fortification.’

The Lebanese village across the valley is indeed cause for concern, although any outward Hezbollah presence lurks below the surface: There are no flags visible, and its forces patrol the area in civilian garb and concealed weapons. But the local shepherds—to say nothing of the Lebanese Armed Forces stationed in the village—are believed to be working at the Shiite militia’s behest. Israeli residents, though, appear oblivious to the threat; or rather, they likely understand the threat better than most. Except in a few isolated instances, Hezbollah has not attacked across the border and certainly not civilians. By one measure, the Israeli-Lebanese frontier during the past decade is the calmest it has been in more than 30 years. Neither side, least of all Hezbollah, wants a repeat of 2006. At least not yet.

This helps explain the locals’ nonchalance about walking in the open, or touting the place as a “relaxing weekend” away from hectic Tel Aviv, in plain sight of the enemy. Contrast this with Israel’s volatile front line with the Gaza Strip, where walking in the open so close to the border is just not done—not by residents, and not by Israeli army personnel. As if on cue, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) patrol drives by, on its way to a base just up the road from the Blue Line tzimer. It was from this base, on an equally quiet morning 10 years ago, that the Second Lebanon War was put into motion.


“They definitely have eyes on us, you can be sure of that.”

Yossi Baranes, a gruff retired IDF officer and now the local security officer—“the sheriff of Zar’it”—says this matter-of-factly as he points up at the Lebanese village of Ayta Ash Shab, perched high on a hill just above the border fence. There is little to worry about, the locals seem to be intimating again, despite the fact that at this very spot, on July 12, 2006, Hezbollah fighters ambushed two IDF Humvees with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles, killing three and absconding across the border with two injured IDF reservists—Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev (they would later be confirmed dead and their bodies swapped in a prisoner exchange). The location is an asphalt access road for military patrols that runs through a narrow wadi, or dry riverbed; a sheer rock wall to the left, hilly terrain full of dense trees and green cover (even in the July heat) to the right. In short, a perfect choke point for a well-executed ambush.

The overall attack included mortar and small-arms fire on Israeli border settlements like Zar’it. The Israeli response was haphazard and included a failed cross-border rescue attempt that claimed the lives of five other soldiers. This chain of events led, two days later, to the full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah that lasted more than a month, claiming the lives of 113 additional IDF soldiers and 44 civilians, and more than a thousand Lebanese (of whom an unknown but likely significant number were Hezbollah militants). Viewed as an inconclusive stalemate at the time, the vaunted IDF emerged from the war bloodied. Yet with the benefit of the last 10 years of relative quiet, many now concede that the level of pain Israel brought to bear on Hezbollah did return a semblance of deterrence to the relationship. Even Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, admitted as much, saying: “We did not think that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me if I had known on July 11 [2006] … that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.”

At this location now, a simple stone memorial and a banner with Goldwasser and Regev’s faces are the sole testaments to a war that only brought the situation on the Blue Line back to a delicate status quo ante. Yet its aftershocks are still being felt, especially inside the IDF.

In many respects the IDF, for a decade, has been preparing methodically for another crack at Hezbollah. As IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said earlier this year, Hezbollah is the “organization with the most significant capabilities” to inflict harm on the country. Accordingly, the IDF revamped its training methods, with armor and infantry brigades—in particular, reserve units—undergoing intensive exercises with an eye to a major ground offensive in the hills of southern Lebanon. Israeli Air Force officers tout their more “efficient” precision-strike capabilities, able to deliver thousands of bombs onto their targets daily—to better reach Hezbollah’s widely dispersed positions (usually found under civilian homes). Eisenkot himself championed the formation of a Commando Brigade for more agile, penetrating attacks against guerrilla groups like Hezbollah.

The difference between 2006 and the next round, one senior IDF officer with responsibility for Lebanon recently told me, “will be the difference between an operation and a war: 2006 was an operation, and we didn’t use all of our power. Next time it won’t just be planes flying around.” Indeed, in the 2006 conflict, Israel launched only an ill-defined ground offensive after trying (and failing ) to win the war from the air. Next time, the officer promised, ground forces—likely tallying several divisions—will be mobilized quickly and sent in “maneuvering … wherever Hezbollah is. We will use all of our power to destroy Hezbollah militarily.”

Such statements—read threats—from the IDF are common, especially over the past several months as the rhetoric on both sides of the Blue Line has heated up. As another IDF officer familiar with the Northern Command explained, Israel needs to finish the next round much faster than last time. “We need to find the pin in [Hezbollah’s] heart and kill it quickly,” he said, not simply to shorten the length of the war but above all to stem Hezbollah’s main threat: rocket and missile attacks on Israel’s civilian population. Boots on the ground are therefore essential.

For all the advances made by the IDF in recent years, what keeps Israeli officials up at night is the specter of thousands of Hezbollah projectiles raining down on Israeli cities—and against which even the state’s cutting-edge missile defense systems don’t have an answer.


“All I know about missiles is this: It’s better to give than receive,” says Ari Sacher in his quip-filled way. Equally at ease talking New York Mets baseball as he is detailing warhead sizes, Sacher is an engineer and system-development specialist at Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Meeting at Rafael’s sprawling campus outside Carmelit, in northern Israel, Sacher, it turns out, knows quite a bit more about missiles. Rafael, including Sacher himself, is responsible for developing the Iron Dome anti-missile system, known worldwide for successfully shooting Hamas rockets out of the sky during the last two Gaza wars (2012 and 2014).

Just as the IDF hasn’t been idle over the past decade, Hezbollah has been busily preparing for the next round too, building up a rocket and missile arsenal in southern Lebanon rivaled by few countries, let alone a non-state militia. If in 2006 Hezbollah had anywhere from 12,000 to 18,000 rockets, mostly short-range and unguided, the estimated number now is anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000—including, most troublingly, heavier longer-range missiles with, in Sacher speak, “electro-optical terminal guidance” systems.

Put another way, if in the last war Hezbollah was able to keep firing on Israeli civilians in northern Israel for the duration of the 34 days (at a clip of just over 100 rockets a day), next time Hezbollah could fire an estimated 1,000 rockets and missiles—a day—at the entire country, including major strategic targets: the chemical plants in Haifa, IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, the Knesset building in Jerusalem, and even the nuclear reactor in Dimona. The crown jewel of Hezbollah’s arsenal, the Fateh-110 long-range guided missile, has a 650-kilogram warhead—more powerful, and more accurate, than Saddam Hussein’s SCUD missiles, which brought down apartment blocks during the 1991 Gulf War.

“The next war will be spent by a lot of people in bomb shelters,” Sacher says—an obvious point but one that, coming from the developers of the systems meant to soften the blow, lands with a thud. It was, Sacher goes on, a numbers game: the gallows math of Israel’s unique strategic environment. Too many important locations—cities, airports, military bases, power plants, key infrastructure, the list is endless—for too few Iron Dome batteries. At present, Israel has nine Iron Dome batteries, with a 10th set to go online soon and 13 expected in total. Each Iron Dome battery consists of three launchers, and each launcher has 20 missile interceptors in it. Back-of-the-envelope arithmetic says that even with 13 batteries, Israel will have less than 800 interceptors at the ready at any one time before reloading—against what is likely to be a major daily barrage from Lebanon meant to overwhelm the system. And this only to combat the shorter-range rockets and missiles for which Iron Dome was created.

The longer-range missiles, like the Fateh-110 and its smaller cousin the M-302, will need to be intercepted by a new system Rafael has developed, David’s Sling. The good news is that David’s Sling is set to go online this fall (an underappreciated factor for why, on Israel’s end, the next round with Hezbollah can wait). More to the point, the two to three David’s Sling batteries set to be built need only protect the length of Israel from just two locations given its wider operational reach. The bad news, though, is that once again each David’s Sling battery has, at most, six launchers, with 12 interceptors in each launcher. No one, not even Sacher and his fellow eggheads at Rafael, can know for certain how the entire system will handle days upon days of missiles barrages, interceptions and reloads.

The obvious question is why, given the numbers, Israel doesn’t simply produce more David’s Sling and Iron Dome batteries, swathing the country. Sacher explains that there was a budgetary component, but also a conceptual one. Crouching behind a missile defense system—wondrous as it may be—“is simply not the way you win wars,” he says. “It gives you space to win wars, but F-35s [stealth fighters] are how you win wars.” So, inevitably, Hezbollah’s projectiles will get through, especially in the early days of the next conflict. Despite the recent, guarded leaks from Israeli officials preparing the populace for what may lie ahead, it’s unclear if the sheer scale of the devastation has been fully internalized.

Sacher, for his part, makes his thoughts clear. “This war,” he says, “cannot be allowed to happen.”


Another war between Israel and Hezbollah will eventually happen; on this, almost everyone agrees. The only question is when. Most assessments, including from the IDF, state flatly that Hezbollah has no interest in sparking another round in the foreseeable future. The group is too heavily invested in the Syrian civil war and it has too many domestic Lebanese problems (in particular economic) to deal with at present. And besides, why would Hezbollah’s patrons in Iran want to waste such a valuable asset, painstakingly built up over three decades, just to see it mortally wounded over a small border skirmish like in 2006?

And so life on the border, in Zar’it and beyond, proceeds with a classically Israeli dissonance, between the quotidian and the calamitous. Towns and villages in the western Galilee are expanding to take in arriving families, drawn to the area for its idyllic rural lifestyle and tax breaks; parks and wineries and tzimers are filled with tourists from Tel Aviv and the center of the country; there is even talk of the first movie theater opening soon.

Merav Yosef, a mother of four from Neve Ziv, a small village in the Maaleh Yosef Regional Council, of which Zar’it is a part, says locals are obviously aware of the threat from Hezbollah—how could they not be?—but that they’ll be able to deal with it. A member of the regional council, Yosef has been intimately involved in contingency planning for the next round. Over lunch at the Sahara Restaurant down the road from her home, Yosef lays out how mandatory evacuations work and how much of the region will be turned into a closed military zone. For Yosef’s village and a handful of others, dealing with the threat will mean relocating en masse to a partnering regional council near Hadera, a city just south of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast, for the duration of the war. The idea would be for these communities to get to know one another ahead of time, to build bonds—to make the trauma of evacuation under fire somehow easier on the families.

The IDF’s Home Front Command has for several years been methodically putting these plans in place, coordinating between the civilian population and government bodies, training emergency personnel on first response at impact sites, clearing out bomb shelters, and hardening kindergartens in municipal buildings (so local officials can keep providing needed services).

The obvious issue, though, is that given Hezbollah’s new capabilities, would Hadera even be far enough away for Yosef and her family and neighbors? “This is a good question,” Yosef responds after a long pause.

Back in Zar’it, at the Blue Line tzimer, such questions are brushed aside for more immediate and manageable concerns, like landscaping the garden next to the pool for the coming weekend’s guests. During a break from the work, Yariv Maman, the middle-aged tzimer owner (no relation to his chicken-farming neighbor, Lynne), relays a story from a decade ago.

Right after the last war, a Dutch film crew had the idea of presenting ready-made questionnaires to civilians on both sides of the border, in Zar’it and Marwahin, asking the same basic questions about themselves and their lives. “We wanted the same things!” Maman says now excitedly. “You see that house with the yellow tiled roof?” he asks, pointing across the border fence to the other side of the valley. “I know that guy is a dental technician, I know how many children he has. … If there was peace,” he goes on, “I would be there every day.”

But there isn’t peace—only the illusion of quiet. Before leaving, Maman provides his phone number and the contact information for the tzimer. “In case you want to come back for a relaxing weekend in the hot tub,” he says. Or, in the event of war, for the exact opposite.


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Neri Zilber is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His Twitter feed is @NeriZilber.