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Southern Lebanon Looms in Fears of Second Front in the Hamas-Israel War

Clashes are becoming more intense along the Lebanese-Israeli border, raising fears of escalation.

Words: Hunter Williamson
Pictures: Hunter Williamson
Date:

The Alma Verdi Hotel in Aalma El Chaeb in Southern Lebanon sat almost completely empty, its only inhabitants were the owner and two of its employees: Ibrahim and Nabil.* Most everyone else in the village was gone, driven away by the fighting along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

For the past week and a half, Iranian-backed forces in southern Lebanon have engaged in cross-border clashes with the Israeli military in support of their ally Hamas, the Palestinian movement fighting a brutal war against Israel in Gaza. The most powerful of the groups in Lebanon, Hezbollah, has led the fight – an intensifying battle of tit-for-tat attacks involving small arms fire, rockets and artillery, tanks and anti-tank missiles, and Israeli air power. For the past week and a half, Ibrahim and Nabil, along with others, have been caught in the crossfire.

On a sunny Tuesday, the morning of Oct. 17, 2023, some colleagues and I traveled to the hotel in Aalma El Chaeb, a southern Lebanese village only a kilometer from the border. We were supposed to meet the owner, Milad Eid, but he wasn’t there when we arrived. Instead we met Ibrahim and Nabil, two middle-aged men taking care of the hotel. Both are from villages near Aalma El Chaeb, a Christian enclave in the largely Muslim southern region of the heavily sectarian country. The village lies closest to Ibrahim’s home village, Dhayra. Since clashes began on Oct. 8, it has been the site of frequent clashes that have left at least three civilians injured. “Everything is bombed,” Ibrahim says.

On Monday afternoon and the early hours of Tuesday, clashes unfolded near Dhayra, with reports and images that white phosphorus was used. Ibrahim confirmed seeing what appeared to be the incendiary weapon, and Human Rights Watch reported its use last week in southern Lebanon. HRW noted that use of the weapon in densely populated areas poses a risk to civilians and can be a violation of international humanitarian law. The weapon seemed to have mostly been used in open areas in southern Lebanon, butater on Tuesday, Mohamad Mostafa, a doctor at the Lebanese Italian Hospital in the seaside city of Tyre, told us that he had received seven patients the night before who showed symptoms in line with exposure to white phosphorus. 

But for all the fighting, Ibrahim appeared strikingly lax. He wore a t-shirt, shorts, socks, and slides. Many people have fled southern Lebanon. But not him or Nabil. “They’re scared,” Ibrahim said about those who left. He expects a full-scale war to erupt. “It might be worse than 2006.”

Historical Precedence 

The last time Lebanon was involved in a war was in 2006. It lasted just over a month. But it wasn’t the Lebanese military leading the fight against Israel, it was Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shia group widely considered to be the most powerful non-state actor in the world. In the mind-bogglingly complex Mediterranean country located north of Israel, it is Hezbollah that exercises the most power, particularly in the south. The group enjoys broad support from Shiites in Lebanon and operates both a political wing and a military one. The US and other countries designate it a terrorist organization, but in Lebanon, it has a more complicated image. Some hate it and blame it for being the source of Lebanon’s myriad of problems. Others hail it as The Resistance, the only force capable of protecting Lebanon from foreign aggression, namely Israel.

In 2006, cross-border clashes and abductions launched by Hezbollah into Israel sparked war. Some 1200 Lebanese and 158 Israelis died. Israel inflicted heavy damage to Hezbollah-controlled areas and critical infrastructure. But Israel ultimately withdrew its forces, and Hezbollah claimed victory, portraying the fight as another instance of it defending Lebanese soil from Israeli aggression.

Today, many people fear that a repeat of the 2006 war lies ahead. As fighting rages between Hamas and Israel, it looks increasingly likely that Hezbollah and Iran will turn up the heat in support of their ally. 

As we talked with Ibrahim and Nabil, we heard the sound of a fighter jet across the border. Like many others who have chosen to stay in southern Lebanon, Ibrahim sent his family away to a safer part of the country.

“Are you scared?” I asked him and Nabil. They answered quickly and confidently: “No.” They’re used to it, they explained. There have been tensions along the border for years, with limited cross-border clashes being something of a common occurrence. But this time is different, and both men worried about their homes. For many in Lebanon, the home is among the most prized possessions.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Shelling

After chatting with Ibrahim and Nabil, Milad contacted us. He was near a village church with other residents. We agreed to meet him there.

We found him seated with a group of several other men at a bakery across from the church. There was a Lebanese TV news crew interviewing some of the men, so we went inside the bakery. A television played news from the war in Gaza. We met the owner of the bakery, who told us that she closed it the week prior due to the fighting. Per the insistence of her daughter, she was planning to head to Beirut soon. After the TV crew finished their work, we stepped back outside to talk with Monseigneur Maroun Ghafari, the church priest.

Maroun said that he believes that the Lebanese government doesn’t care about the village or its residents, so they feel it is up to them to ensure their own well-being and safety. “We’re not scared,” he said. “But we’re paying attention to the situation because no one knows what is going to happen.”

The Lebanese state is widely considered weak and dysfunctional, unable to fulfill standard governmental duties and services. Its shortcomings are evident across the country, from its inability to provide electricity to its failure to collect garbage. But when it comes to security, the situation is more complicated. The Lebanese military is not considered as powerful as Hezbollah’s armed wing. Both cooperate and have a complicated relationship. And in Lebanon’s complicated political system, the matter of war and peace, particularly vis a vis Israel, largely rests with Hezbollah, a power that garners polarized responses from the Lebanese populous. 

The residents of Aalma El Chaeb that we spoke to said they are against Hezbollah and its Palestinian allies using their village as a base for attacks. Maroun and others believe the Lebanese military should intervene and stop them. But because it can’t, they feel they have to protect themselves, acting in a way as a sort of town watch by remaining in the village. Maroun says they want nothing to do with the conflict. “We’re not responsible,” he says. “We are just receiving.” He continued, “We have nothing to do with this war.”

But there aren’t enough people, deputy mayor William Haddad said, meaning they can’t stop all operations. On Sunday, Hezbollah or Palestinian fighters – it wasn’t not clear exactly who – launched attacks from the largely vacant, eastern side of the village, residents said. The attacks drew retaliatory fire from Israel, damaging four empty homes, residents said, showing photographs of the damage. 

Seated with us at the table, Milad joined the conversation. He agreed with Maroun. “We know they want to liberate Jerusalem,” he said, referring to Hezbollah and the Palestinian forces. “But the road there won’t be from Aalma El Chaeb.” 

When Hezbollah formed in the 1980s during Lebanon’s civil war, one of its stated aims was to liberate Palestine from Israel. That objective puts it in common cause with Palestinian forces based in the country, as well as Iran, Israel’s most staunch enemy.

It isn’t that the village is against Palestinians, Milad explained. He acknowledged that the situation in Gaza is terrible. It’s just that they want nothing to do with the fighting. They want peace, not war or the threat of it. “We don’t know between tonight and tomorrow what will happen,” he said. “But I think tomorrow it will start.” As of now, residents said the situation is not as bad as 2006. Shelling then was worse. But some people fear it will be just as bad, if not worse.

Attacks along the border come in waves, often starting abruptly and shattering the tense quiet.

Residents also said that Israel targeted the village’s water tank on Sunday, forcing them to rely on rainwater collected in wells in recent days. “Why did they shell this?” Maroun asked. “Thank God that it was raining the last two days,” Milad said. “It was a very good sign from God that He gave us the water.”

An estimated 80 of Aalma El Chaeb’s pre-conflict population of some 800 residents have fled, according to Milad and other residents. If a full-scale war erupts, those remaining plan to shelter in the church’s bunker. Milad hopes the situation will calm down, but he and those still left expect a war to begin at any moment. Hezbollah and Iran have threatened to retaliate hard if Israel does not back down from its assault on Gaza. But as Israel heads towards a ground invasion of the strip, many in Lebanon fear that the situation along the border will escalate. 

Attacks along the border come in waves, often starting abruptly and shattering the tense quiet. Milad conceded that each time fighting erupts, people are a bit scared. But the Israeli shelling mostly hits around the village, not inside. As we talked, explosions rang not far away. Milad continued to smoke and look casually at Maroun, almost as if he didn’t hear the attacks. “This is something normal,” he said after I mentioned his calm demeanor. “Every day we hear this.” In 2006, “ it was worse because they were shelling our houses inside the village. One of our ladies got killed.” Suddenly two explosions sounded closer. Milad stopped, his eyes changed, he lifted a finger. “This is something not good,” he said. We decided to leave. Grabbing our stuff, Milad invited us back to the hotel.

What Lies Ahead?

We met Ibrahim and Nabil again at the hotel and started up another conversation as we waited for Milad to arrive. After about fifteen minutes, he finally did. He told us that he went to inspect what happened. He spotted some smoke and determined that the explosions we heard were Israeli shelling responding to two projectiles launched from near the village. “It’s nothing,” Milad said. “It’s normal. For us it’s normal.”

He motioned for us to sit at a table and offered us something to drink. As we began to talk, Haddad, the village deputy mayor, joined us. I asked him the same question I asked everyone else: are you scared? He laughed. “If I’m scared, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “Nobody is not scared. But this is my village, this is where I was born, where my kids were born. It’s everything that we have. Somebody should stay to look after the village.’” He too sent his family away.

As we continued to talk, a man walked in and said that his phone was taken by someone after he used it to photograph an unfamiliar vehicle that had entered the town. William and the others can not say for certain, but they believe that the operatives were members of Hezbollah. Incidents like this and the one on Sunday are what worry residents. It’s why they stay – to prevent their village from becoming another staging ground for Hezbollah and Palestinians.

Just how long Haddad will stay is an open question. “Until now, the situation is bearable,” he said. “It’s not constant bombing.” By that point, Aalma El Chaeb was mostly quiet, though we could faintly hear the roar of a fighter jet across the border and the occasional distant explosion somewhere along the front. “Nobody knows what the war could look like,” he said. “I don’t think Israel will open two wars.” 

So far, Haddad appears to be partially right. Israel’s defense minister said on Sunday that his country has no interest in a war with Hezbollah. But he warned it will respond to attacks. With Hezbollah and Iran threatening more retaliation if Israel’s siege on Gaza continues, the writing is on the wall. All of this leads William and many ordinary people in Lebanon to the same conclusion: “The decision of war and peace is not in our hands.” 

As he finished speaking, another explosion boomed in the distance.

Mosque
Ahel El-Quran Mosque in the village of Dhayra stands damaged from recent crossborder fire between Israel and armed groups based in southern Lebanon.
Maroun
Monseigneur Maroun Ghafari, a local priest, sits outside a bakery in Aalma El Chaeb on Oct. 17, 2023.
Milad 1
Milad Eid, the owner of the Alma Verdi Hotel in Aalma El Chaeb, sits at a table outside a bakery in the village on Oct, 17, 2023.
Milad 2
Milad stands inside his hotel on Oct. 17, 2023.
Hezbollah-funeral-1-1
A Hezbollah flag waves in the sunlight during a funeral in the southern Lebanese village of Khirbet Selm on Oct. 10, 2023 for two of its fighters who were killed the previous day by Israeli attacks.
Fear

A group of several men joined us at the hotel and sat at a nearby table overlooking a pool and a view of the green hilltops running west to the sparkling blue Mediterranean Sea. Its view could almost block out the noise of jets and explosions and make you question if this beautiful land is really heading toward war. From the kitchen came the sweet smell and sound of Lebanese dishes cooking. Haddad paced the room, checking his phone and making calls. Ibrahim chatted with the man whose phone was taken.

“It’s very stressful,” one of the men at the table said about the situation. He was more on edge than others, fearful of giving his name and saying too much. “It’s messy,” he continued. 

“We have been here since the war began,” his friend said. 

I asked the first man why, if he is so nervous, did he choose to stay. 

“I live here,” he replied. “My whole life is here. I came back from the UAE to live here.” He stretched his hand to the view from the table. “See, it’s nice to live here.” There was another reason too: his chickens. He owned twenty. “I love my chickens,” he said. “I don’t want to leave them.” He noted too that it’s hard to move. “That’s a problem for some people,” he said. “They don’t have houses to go to.” But if the situation escalates, he was sure that he and others will find somewhere to stay. “Everyone is packed.” 

I tried to ask him more questions, but he politely refused. With a nervous smile, he stood, put his hands behind his head, and walked away. Before leaving, he turned and said, “If we were in Cyprus, maybe I would talk.”

Lunch

In traditional Lebanese hospitality, Milad treated us to a feast of grilled chicken, fattoush salad, beef kebab, and Arabic bread. As Ibrahim set the table, the Red Cross reported that four people were killed in Aalma El Chaeb. “See, everyone now will go,” Milad said. We learned later that the fatalities were not residents but Palestinian fighters.

We sat at the table. Milad and William both took a can of Almaza, Lebanon’s famous light Pilsner beer. Milad stared at his phone. “Mayadeen is talking to me,” he said, referring to a major Arabic news network based in Lebanon. “I don’t want to answer.” Haddad, meanwhile, continued to respond to calls and messages. Somehow his name had been circulated as one of the four killed, and people were contacting him to see if it was true. Haddad laughed at the situation. At another table, Ibrahim smoked and listened. “Enough with your phone,” Milad told him. William put it down and ate. 

From somewhere, a cat meowed. “Come here,” Milad called to it, but it didn’t come. While that cat happened to be a stray that hangs around the hotel, Milad and William explained that a number of pets were left by residents who fled. “They called and asked us to go and feed them,” William said. He said that they left not only their pets but “their homes and everything they have.” He said it with a smile, but it speaks to the painful, personal reason that he and those still in Aalma El Chaeb choose to stay despite the growing danger.

After finishing his food, Milad lit a cigarette and talked about his hotel. It was part of his reason for choosing to stay. He has owned it for eleven years, and before a series of crises afflicted Lebanon, the hotel thrived, especially during the summer when the country’s tourism sector peaks. “Before 2019, we had a lot of customers,” he said. “But during the economic crisis and corona and the war – less now. But we still have customers.” 

Williams stands from the table and begins to pace the room again, responding to more calls. My colleague asked if Milad hopes for help from the US. “We are not expecting anything from anybody,” he said. So far, the US has been vocal about its support for Israel. But when it comes to Lebanon, Washington’s comments have focused on little other than preventing more actors from getting involved. The State Department did not respond to an inquiry regarding whether US officials have been in contact with Lebanese officials about the situation along the border. 

For their part, Milad seemed confident that those still in the village can handle things themselves. “We are not suffering,” he said. “We are fit.” I ask him if being one of the sole Christian villages in the Muslim majority south poses issues.

“God put us here, and we have to respect His choice,” Milad said. 

Nodding his head, William agreed.

“His will,” he said.

Ibrahim and Nabil asked to have only their first names used for safety reasons.

Hunter Williamson

Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He covers the Middle East and Asia.

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