The Next Lebanon War (Tablet Magazine, Sept. 10, 2021)

By Matti Friedman

(Read the piece in Tablet here.)

The rule for watching the Israel-Lebanon frontier is that although nothing seems to be going on, something always is. Nothing seemed to be going on, for example, on one of the afternoons I recently spent along the electrified fence trying to sense the course of events this fraught summer, gazing out at a green blanket of shrubbery stretching toward a cluster of Lebanese homes nearby. All was still in the late summer heat.

A bush rustled just across the fence and a gray sunhat appeared, followed by a bearded face and then a purposeful body belonging to a young man in a black Adidas soccer jersey—Hezbollah, but armed only with a camera. Anyone who’s ever spent time in an ambush or on guard duty knows how thrilling it is to have something to do after hours of boredom, and there was a spring in the man’s step as he strode in our direction. He raised his telephoto lens at a spot about 50 yards from where I watched with an Israeli officer and two soldiers. The guerrillas don’t operate alone, but the photographer’s comrades, presumably equipped with more than cameras, remained in the bushes, unseen.

The Hezbollah lookouts in the windows of the placid town nearby, Ayta ash-Shab, and scattered throughout the underbrush had probably seen the Israeli Jeep climbing the approach road to the border emplacement and knew its multiple antennas meant it belonged to a commander. They were waiting. The officer wasn’t surprised to see the photographer, who snapped a few dozen shots of us. We took a few cell-phone shots of him. Hezbollah watches the army watching Hezbollah watching the army. “This sector is like a game of chess,” the officer said.

The Lebanon frontier is rarely the first worry for Israelis or for international onlookers. There’s usually something that seems more urgent. But wise observers never take their eyes off this border for long. Looking west along the ridge from the point where I encountered the Hezbollah photographer, for example, it’s possible to see the spot near a bend in the road where, as usual, nothing appeared to be going on until one day in 2019 the army uncovered a Hezbollah attack tunnel 80 yards underground, with stairs rising to an exit located 250 yards inside Israeli territory. A sign in the tunnel read “To Jerusalem.” The guerrillas had been digging it for years. The army destroyed it, along with five others that were revealed at different points along the fence. Awareness of the border then receded, as it does, but anyone paying attention knows Hezbollah is hard at work and working hard to conceal it. Glimpses become possible here and there. Last year, what seemed to be a civilian home in the town of Ain Qana exploded when a Hezbollah weapons store detonated. And a few months ago, in an attempt to bring attention to what’s being built beneath the civilian landscape of Lebanon, the army released photos of what it identified as another weapons cache. This one, in the village of Ebba, was concealed in a civilian building next to a school.

The trickle of desperate civilians trying to get across the border into Israel—some Sudanese migrants and other foreigners, but Lebanese citizens as well—has increased. They’re usually spotted by the young women soldiers in rooms full of screens who keep track of the border cameras and sensors, then intercepted by patrols of the brigade of military engineers currently responsible for the fence in this sector. I met a few of the brigade’s sunburned 20-year-olds lounging by their Humvee at the gate of a base just west of Buttercup, Outpost Livneh (“birch”), under towering concrete barriers erected to block sight lines and bullets from Lebanon, which is just a few yards away.

Driving the zigzag road up the border ridge from Western Galilee takes you out of Israel and into a high-elevation world that feels like somewhere else—a kind of in-between country that almost seems more Lebanese than Israeli. Down in the lowlands are beaches and restaurants where you can forget Lebanon and Hezbollah, but not up here. Israeli civilians live as close to the fence as the soldiers, but unlike soldiers, they never rotate out. At places like Kibbutz Adamit, the people who raise chickens and apples have lived through a half century of violence going across the border in both directions. There were the years of infiltrations by Palestinian terrorists in the ’70s and ’80s, such as the attack on a civilian bus at Avivim that killed 12 civilians, including 9 kids, or the one at the kindergarten at Kibbutz Misgav Am, or the school in Ma’a lot. There were dozens.

Then came Israel’s first major incursion against the Palestinian fighters in Lebanon in 1978, as the Lebanese tore themselves apart in a 15-year civil war; then the big, botched Israeli invasion of ’82, the First Lebanon War; then the 18 years of small-scale combat in Israel’s “security zone” in south Lebanon, which saw the eclipse of the Palestinian groups and the rise of the Shi’a army Hezbollah and its backers from Iran. That period, which the Israeli government finally recognized officially as a war just this year, ended in 2000 with a disorderly overnight withdrawal and the abandonment of Israel’s local Lebanese allies, followed by a Hezbollah takeover the same day. Viewed from the summer of 2021, it was an event reminiscent in nature, though of course not in scale, of the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan. The withdrawal in 2000 was followed by small attacks and infiltrations—three soldiers killed on patrol, a shepherd murdered in Western Galilee as he tended his flock, two army technicians shot off an antenna at Outpost Buttercup—and then, in the summer of 2006, by the Second Lebanon War.

Just beneath Outpost Birch, a few steps from the electrified fence, I stopped the car at the spot on the road where a Hezbollah team had crossed the border that summer of 2006 and surprised a routine patrol of army reservists, spiriting two bodies into Lebanon to serve as bargaining chips. An Israeli tank rushed into position by Outpost Buttercup, which Hezbollah anticipated, having kept a close eye on army maneuvers: An IED destroyed the tank and killed everyone inside.

Over the following month northern Israel was hit by thousands of rockets, and parts of Lebanon were ravaged by the Israeli Air Force. I covered that war, living in my parents’ reinforced “safe room” just south of the border in Nahariya, which became a ghost town as residents fled south. Since then, everyone here has been waiting for the “next war,” which is considered a foregone conclusion and is universally described in advance as much worse than the last one. Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal is bigger and deadlier than it was 15 summers ago, and in the Next War, it won’t be only northern Israel that’s in range. Hezbollah’s patrons in Iran are more emboldened now than they were in 2006, while our patrons, the Americans, are confused and ailing. We’re strong and heavy, and Hezbollah has the element of surprise. There isn’t likely to be a buildup. The Next War will start like the last one, all at once, when nothing seems to be happening.

Hezbollah’s patrons in Iran are more emboldened than they were in 2006, while our patrons, the Americans, are confused and ailing.

Dan Kohn has lived at Kibbutz Adamit for 50 years. In the last war, when most people in the border zone evacuated to the south, he and the other residents stayed put. They’re so close to the fence that the Hezbollah munitions sailed right over their heads. Nothing hit the kibbutz until the last day of the war, when a Katyusha rocket destroyed a Daewoo Super Racer belonging to Kohn’s son, who’d parked it a few minutes before. Like most Israelis, Kohn has considerable regard for Hezbollah. “When they come over the fence, it won’t be with just two or three people, like the Palestinian groups in the old days,” he said. It’ll be a few dozen. The army has been warning that the Next War could involve an attempt by Hezbollah to capture an entire Israeli community and hold it, even just for a few hours or a day. This kibbutz would be one obvious target. It wouldn’t be that hard. It’s true that the army destroyed those six tunnels under the border. “But I sometimes wonder if they found the seventh,” Kohn said.

The residents of Adamit have regular meetings with army officers, who’ve assured them that in the case of a Hezbollah incursion, soldiers will reach them in minutes. “I don’t believe a word they say,” Kohn told me, but he didn’t seem too worried. Lebanon, with its bewitching landscape and tendency to deliver unpleasant surprises, is just part of his life. He took me for a drive along the fence, past the neighboring Bedouin village of Aramsheh, whose Israeli residents have relatives on the Lebanese side. We saw the blue metal barrels painted with the letters “UN” that mark the international border. A white UN helicopter passed overhead, part of the toothless international force that is meant to keep the peace along the border but can do nothing about Hezbollah. This afternoon the pilot would report, no doubt, that nothing was going on.

As I drove to meet Kohn at Adamit on Aug. 4, the radio reported a three-rocket attack launched from Lebanon, attributed to a Palestinian faction. No one was hurt. Israel responded with airstrikes that didn’t hurt anyone either, and then Hezbollah fired a barrage of 19 rockets over the border, the first time it had claimed responsibility for such an attack since the 2006 war. It was a uniquely public step. In a sign of growing stress inside Lebanon, the Hezbollah team that fired the rockets was detained and roughed up by furious Druze villagers who understood that their lives were at risk if the Israelis fired back. One of the Druze filmed it and put the video online. That was unique too.

The events demonstrate the immense gap between the concerns of Israelis and the preoccupations of Western observers. Israel now has Iranian proxies and allies on its borders with Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza and is regularly rocketed from territories it ceded in south Lebanon in 2000 and in Gaza in 2005. Since the 2006 war with Hezbollah, and through several rounds of fighting with Hamas, the propaganda of these groups has found purchase in Western societies and capitals. Hezbollah, like Hamas and like the Iranians who support them both, have an acute grasp of the addled intellectual moment in the United States and of the ideological confusion of what remains of the Western press.

They understand that the rocket launch from the civilian backyard in Gaza or Lebanon won’t be filmed; the innocent people killed in the Israeli counterstrike will be captured by a dozen film crews, then tweeted by supermodels and a few members of Congress as #IsraeliGenocide. A Hezbollah weapons warehouse located next to a school elicits a shrug; its destruction by an Israeli jet will be the subject of an “investigation” by Human Rights Watch and a photo essay in The New York Times in which a single empty school desk stands, undamaged and picturesque, in the rubble. The script is already written. Javad Zarif, until recently the Iranian foreign minister, has learned to condemn Israel not as an affront to the regime’s brand of fundamentalist Islam, but to “human rights, humanitarian law, and international law,” and growing numbers of Westerners think this makes sense. All of this was put to effective use by Israel’s enemies in the last war in Gaza in May—and all of it will come into play with greater force in the Next Lebanon War, whenever it happens.

Spending time on the border with Yitzhak Huri, a lieutenant colonel who’s the second-in-command of the army brigade in this sector, I asked if he thought Lebanon’s disintegration and the desperation of its citizens made war more or less likely. Does the crisis lead the Lebanese to pull back to avoid further mayhem, or go for broke? “When a person has nothing to lose, you can’t know what he’s capable of,” Huri said. “The same goes for countries.”

I put the same question to the Lebanon watcher David Daoud, who was born to a Jewish family in Beirut and lives in Washington, D.C., where he works with the Atlantic Council and the advocacy group United Against a Nuclear Iran. Hezbollah has never wanted Lebanon to be a prosperous state “like Israel or Singapore,” Daoud said, because that would limit its autonomy. But at the same time, he said, the organization’s interests aren’t served by another civil war or the kind of state collapse that would be hastened by a war with Israel at this moment. The group is more likely, Daoud thinks, to try to use the current crisis to make itself even more central to the lives of its followers by doing what it has always done: providing services that should be provided by the state but aren’t. Hezbollah is already distributing bread and fuel, and if it plays its cards right, it will emerge stronger. “The crisis hasn’t weakened Hezbollah, but it has constrained them to such an extent that they must act responsibly on the border,” Daoud said.

That’s why, for example, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah quickly announced that his group’s recent 19-rocket barrage was purposely aimed at open fields, not at Israeli civilians or even soldiers. He’s trying to project strength to his followers, insisting he’s unafraid of war, while calibrating his actions to avoid an explosion he won’t be able to handle. But it’s a hazardous game. Both sides may not want a war, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be one. Things could easily slip out of control no matter how closely each side watches the other.

What do Israelis see when we look into Lebanon? A place with beautiful forests and beaches, where different groups of people share a strip of Levantine coast, one that could have been as successful as Israel or more so—the “Switzerland of the East,” as people said in the ’50s and ’60s. Some of us see a country that has been an arena for misguided Israeli policies or the backdrop for a potent chapter of our own young lives as soldiers. Many see a continuous threat.

But there’s another story we might see across the fence this summer, as we struggle to emerge from an unprecedented period of political dysfunction of our own, with four elections in two years and no national budget, with political leaders who’ve tried to convince us to see each other as enemies, and with internal divisions that feel less bridgeable than ever before. Lebanon is a country that allowed itself to be hollowed out. Its different sects failed to create a national story about citizenship that superseded other loyalties, and the state was paralyzed until the fragile edifice corroded, until the forces of progress faded or emigrated and were replaced by religious and tribal powers not just indifferent to modernity but openly contemptuous of it. It’s a story of state collapse, which is one of the themes of this region in our times. The forces of disintegration are weaker in Israel than they are in Lebanon, but they’re present and will win if we let them. The neighbor across the fence isn’t just a problem or a threat. Lebanon is a possible future.