An Israeli soldier wearing a patch on the back of his flak jacket showing Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as a target, stands in front of a self-propelled artillery howitzer in Upper Galilee in northern Israel, Jan. 4, 2024

Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Image

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Waiting for War With Hezbollah

An IDF reservist describes his recent deployment on the northern front

Emily Benedek
February 15, 2024
An Israeli soldier wearing a patch on the back of his flak jacket showing Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as a target, stands in front of a self-propelled artillery howitzer in Upper Galilee in northern Israel, Jan. 4, 2024

Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Image

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Itai Reuveni, a 40-year-old Israeli father, was awakened in his home near Jerusalem during the early morning hours of Oct. 7 by the eerie wail of incoming rocket sirens and the explosions of Iron Dome interceptors in the sky over his head. Not long after, his phone blew up with “endless videos of murder and executions,” images of Israelis dying in towns not even 30 kilometers away from his family home in Ashkelon, where his father and younger brothers live.

Within a couple of hours, Reuveni, who is an NCO and reserve combat medic in the Paratroopers Brigade, said that he and other members of his infantry platoon deduced that “basically the big IDF was nonfunctional” and most of the fighting in defense of the south was being done by either civilians or veterans who had headed out on their own, many without weapons.

“It was just like an apocalypse movie,” he said, “where small squads of people were operating by themselves.” Over the course of the day, he heard stories from the south that have since become legendary, like that of an elderly man who had picked up an old rifle, climbed onto a rooftop, and operated as a sniper against the first Hamas invaders. One young man from Reuveni’s regiment, who had escaped with his life from the Nova festival, joined his fellow reservists at the northern border a day or so late.

At about noon on Oct. 7, Reuveni grabbed his backpack full of combat gear, threw in a few pairs of underwear and a toothbrush, and jumped in his car. He headed toward Lebanon. “What I was reading on the WhatsApp group of my platoon was, ‘OK guys, we’re probably going to be called in a few hours. Don’t wait, take your stuff, go north.’”

Though neither side has decided to escalate beyond ‘low to medium’ intensity skirmishes, Reuveni believes a war with Hezbollah is inevitable.

Because of the horrors they had seen online all morning, and the seeming absence of IDF control, “Our assumption was that we are going to have to fight our way there.”

For the first time in his life, he drove in silence, without music. “Highway 6,” the main north-south route in Israel, he told me, “looked like a NASCAR track. There were hundreds and hundreds of soldiers just flying north.”

“It was a complete blur,” he recalled. “I had just woken up that morning with plans for the week ahead, and now, all I could think about was, ‘we need to fight. That’s what’s going to happen now.’”

Reuveni and I were professional acquaintances before the war. He serves as head of communications for NGO Monitor, an Israeli nonprofit that examines the funding sources of anti-Israel nongovernmental organizations operating in country, a source I have used for several stories. We communicated via WhatsApp from Nov. 28 until he was discharged from the IDF on Jan. 31, and in a long telephone call after he returned home. This is his story, but it is also the story of hundreds of thousands of other Israeli fighters who are providing essential moral guidance to the IDF in this time of war by affirming that Israel is strong and determined to fight and win—in defiance of the manifold forces, including Israel’s closest allies, who would prefer she knelt down in submission to her enemies: Iran and its tentacles in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank.

It took Reuveni an hour and 40 minutes to arrive at his base. By the evening of Oct. 7, Reuveni said that the entire regiment that would ultimately get called north had already shown up. They were joined by a significant number of reservists who were no longer required to serve—almost half the number of those who got called up, according to Reuveni. They were well aware that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had long threatened to attack communities in the north of Israel, “basically to do what Hamas had done in the south.”

“We figured that if we didn’t get there right away, that was what was going to happen. We became soldiers on Oct. 7. We got our equipment, got our guns and ammunition. Because I’m the medic in our platoon, I got my standard medical kit, and on the morning of Oct. 8, we were ready to go in.”

“There were two options: either Hezbollah will attack us and we’re going to stop them inside Israel, or we’re going to enter Lebanon to storm Hezbollah.”

On the evening of Oct. 8, the soldiers in Reuveni’s platoon bivouacked near Nahariya, in public parks, in civilian structures, “just waiting, and basically, preparing our gear.” He tried to collect as many extra Combat Action Tourniquets (CATS) as he could find because he knew that was what could have saved lives in the Gaza Envelope.

Civilians arrived at the parks too, with armloads of home-cooked food, bottled drinks, and other supplies for the soldiers. “All I did those days was eat, arrange how my equipment would fit on me, and think of what exactly I would need for war.”

Finally the orders arrived. It quickly became clear that the IDF was not planning to send them into Lebanon. The “million-dollar question” on everyone’s mind was why Hezbollah hadn’t yet attacked. Reuveni believed that the overnight arrival of tens of thousands of soldiers on the border, denying Hezbollah the element of a surprise attack, was more important to Nasrallah’s calculations than President Biden’s order to move two aircraft carrier strike groups into the eastern Mediterranean.

“It’s important also to acknowledge our weak points,” he told me, explaining that his month in the reserves the previous July on the northern border had made clear that “the negligence that happened in the south could very well have happened in the north also. Easily.”

“And if Hezbollah had infiltrated from the north that morning, on Oct. 7, we would have been fighting them in Haifa and Netanya and Tel Aviv”—a frightening scenario to imagine.

Over the next few weeks, Reuveni’s platoon settled into a position of defensive combat, not on the fence, but as part of “the second line” to prevent Hezbollah infiltration farther into Israel.

He explained that combat strategy teaches the first line of defense will always be breached, but the second line cannot be. “That is the line they will not cross.”

So he and his platoon “with our huge backpacks, with our gear, with our ammunition, with our rockets and grenades and everything, we’re moving from place to place, a few kilometers inside our border.”

At some point, Reuveni doesn’t know exactly when, Hezbollah did move its forces forward, up to the fence. About the same time, Reuveni’s platoon was also ordered to the fence—a tall wire barricade with concrete components at Rosh Hanikra, on the Mediterranean coast.

But it was tough sitting and waiting for the enemy to figure out its strategy, Reuveni admitted. “You hear things, you see things. You don’t know their significance. What was that noise? Why did the Blue Helmets [the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL] just turn out the lights in their post? Or is it nothing?”

“For an infantry soldier, he said, “to be on defensive combat is mentally very hard. First of all, you’re not controlling what’s going on. You’re always waiting, and you probably will be surprised. That’s the nature of war, the offense will always surprise the other side.”

Once they moved up to the border fence, “the threats were very, very real.” There were daily skirmishes. “You have mortars and missiles and efforts to infiltrate. Not an invasion of hundreds or thousands, but small squads. However, with a lot of smart things that we did, by December we had managed to drive Hezbollah some 2 to 3 kilometers away from the border fence near Rosh Hanikra.”

Reuveni said they were trained “for all possibilities”—and for each option, they had an array of “tools,” be they weapons systems, communications technology, or combat tactics. “You need to be very dynamic.”

Hezbollah was armed with drones—small drones the size of phones, and larger suicide drones the size of a car. “They have something of everything, just like we do.”

This is a different challenge for an infantry soldier who is trained to fight in the West Bank, for example, which Reuveni calls a “one-dimensional” battlefield. There, “you have terrorists in a house, you have people fighting on the streets, things like that.”

But up north, he explains, “even for the individual soldier, the threat was multidimensional. I need in any given moment to think about mortars, drones, snipers, or the squad that may be about to storm me. I need to think about the antitank missile that is going to be fired at us from 5 kilometers away, so you don’t even see them coming.”

There were many missions to accomplish and little sleep; four-hour catnaps with boots on was usually the norm. Sometimes they sneaked out for the wedding of a fellow soldier, and then they’d return happy but exhausted, with dancing having taken up their allotted sleep time. The temperature dropped, and guard duty got harder when the rain came down in sheets, pummeling the roof. To remain awake, they kept talking to each other, “keeping ourselves sane,” and drinking coffee and Red Bull. But mostly, “mental will.”

“We were not fighting in Gaza,” as his brothers were, “though we really wanted to be,” he admitted. “Yes, it’s very mentally hard to be on the border and to stay put. But we understood that we saved the north of Israel. By getting there fast and by being there, we are still saving it. If we are not there, Hezbollah will enter, they will come.”

So they learned how to deal with the inaction when it was quiet, and they learned how to respond to the multiplicity of threats when they did arrive with or without warning. The tension waxed and waned. Sometimes, it rose to unbearable levels: Once he wrote, “I’m reading the news in real time as I’m waiting in this fucking bunker for Hezbollah to come.”

“I think that the important part is finding moments to relax or laugh,” he said, “because that helps you when the real shit starts.”

And in this way, they hunted down and eliminated Hezbollah antitank missile squads, and they found and eliminated an attack tunnel whose opening was detected steps from their bunker.

Though neither side has decided to escalate beyond “low to medium” intensity skirmishes, Reuveni believes that a war with Hezbollah is inevitable. “No one wants war, OK?” he says. “We want to be in our own homes. No one wants to maneuver inside Lebanon,” whose terrain is difficult, with cliffs and crevices, rivers and Hezbollah’s own network of attack tunnels. Also Hezbollah is much larger than Hamas, far better trained, with more than 100,000 projectiles and guided missiles, and uninterrupted supply routes that connect to Iran.

But, he added, “we have an enemy that lives and breathes only to murder Jews. This is what they want. This is their aim. Hamas made their appetites and methods very clear, and there is no difference with Hezbollah, except that it is bigger and stronger. “We cannot let it exist next to our houses and borders. That’s it.”

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 was adopted on Aug. 11, 2006, to end a one-month war sparked by a surprise Hezbollah attack on IDF forces along the border that caused the death and abduction of two soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Using the obsequious language of international diplomacy that fails to mention Hezbollah by name, the resolution “calls for” the establishment between the Blue Line and the Litani River of an area “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL.” But Hezbollah never withdrew its forces, and the U.N. Security Council has never enforced its 2006 resolution, the implementation of which was dependent on coordination with the Lebanese authorities, who answer to Hezbollah. The UNIFIL soldiers “do absolutely nothing,” said Reuveni.

Most Israeli villages in the north were evacuated after Oct. 7 and its 80,000 residents have not yet returned. Many homes have been damaged and destroyed by mortars and missiles.

Since Oct. 7, a reported 20 civilians have been killed on the Lebanese side, as well as nearly 200 Hezbollah fighters. In Israel, nine soldiers and 10 civilians have been killed by Hezbollah fire.

President Biden has been pursuing a diplomatic effort to ensure Israel does not launch an operation in Lebanon after Gaza. He has sent Special Presidential Coordinator for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security Amos Hochstein to try and broker a deal that will ostensibly move Hezbollah a few kilometers back from the border—far short of what UNSCR 1701 calls for—in return for IDF demobilization on the border, followed by land border negotiations that would pressure Israel to concede border areas claimed by Hezbollah and Lebanon. In 2022, Hochstein had strong-armed the Israelis to accept a lopsided maritime border deal with Lebanon, working hand in glove with Hezbollah and its cut-outs in the Lebanese government.

Reuveni says that based on history and the reality in Lebanon, “I don’t see any reason why any Israeli would trust negotiations or a diplomatic solution.” In December, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant promised the mayors of the northern communities that their residents would not go home until Hezbollah was driven north of the Litani River. “If they want to go north of the Litani River, let them go,” Reuveni said dismissively. But he is not holding his breath.

On Jan. 31, after 119 days of service, Reuveni was furloughed. He climbed back into his car and drove home. He was told he must report back to duty in May.

“I need to process everything that happened,” he wrote to me a few days after getting home. “It still feels like some kind of dream. And now being back is very mentally hard. Everything is confused and I need to put things in order.”

Emily Benedek has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Mosaic, among other publications. She is the author of five books.