'Now Is the Time of the Sword': Israelis Brace for the Big War in the North

Israeli tanks park in Hanita, Israel. (Andrew Tobin)
March 28, 2024

HANITA, Israel—It's been more than six months since Hamas terrorists rampaged through southern Israel, but here in the north, Oct. 7 never really ended.

On Oct. 8, the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah picked up where its ally left off, launching an ongoing barrage of rockets, missiles, and artillery shells into northern Israel. The violence has so far killed 14 soldiers and eight civilians in Israel, along with dozens of civilians and hundreds of terrorists in Lebanon. While Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza has enabled most of the some 129,000 Israelis who were evacuated from the south to return to their homes, nearly all of the 48,000 or so evacuees from the northern border area have remained displaced, according to government data obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. Tens of thousands of other Israelis have self-evacuated from the north and south.

Amid these mass displacements, the White House has increasingly sought to restrain the Israel Defense Forces response to Oct. 7, with President Joe Biden describing the Gaza war effort as "over the top" and driven by rage. For Israelis, though, the crisis in the north is a constant reminder that they are the ones under attack, and Gaza is just one front in their much larger war of self-defense.

"We need to get used to the fact that we will have to wage war on several fronts simultaneously because this is the Iranian strategy," Orna Mizrahi, the former deputy head of Israel's National Security Council, told the Free Beacon. "The Americans don't want a regional war. Nobody does. But for most of Israel's political and military leadership, the question is not if but when we will have to wage a full-scale war in the north."

Hezbollah and Hamas—two of the numerous Iran-backed terror groups that surround Israel in a "ring of fire"—have both refused to negotiate ceasefires with Israel unless the Jewish state effectively lays down its arms in Gaza. The Biden administration has held Israel back in the north and south, most recently warning against an IDF invasion of Rafah, Hamas's last stronghold in Gaza.

In the meantime, Israel’s far north has been paralyzed. During a recent two-day trip across the length of the border with Lebanon, residents of the evacuated area spoke of widespread fear and frustration.

Soldiers patrol Israel's Route 899. (Andrew Tobin)

"Why is there a tank in my neighbor's yard?" asked Yoram Yitzhaki, a 58-year-old businessman, in an interview at his house in Hanita which he has refused to evacuate. "Why is the army hiding behind our backs?"

Yitzhaki—one of about 11,000 holdouts in the evacuated area, which extends up to 3 miles into Israel from the Lebanon border—said Israel simply cannot protects its borders, at least not without America's permission.

"We are not strong enough," he said. "We like to say we are strong enough. But no, we are not strong enough."

Amit Elasar, 57, a former IDF reconnaissance officer who trains soldiers and recruits in the north, struggled to contain his anger over the unprecedented evacuation. Elasar must pass through two IDF checkpoints and fill out a spreadsheet to visit his evacuated kibbutz, Rosh Hanikra. The road to his house is pockmarked by katyusha rockets and tank treads. The coastline where he jogs and free-dives is clogged with trenches and barbed wire.

"All of this should be up there," Elasar told the Free Beacon, gesturing up the beach toward Lebanon. "Israel cannot protect us, the pioneering settlements in the north. They just told us, ‘Run! Run because we cannot protect you.’"

On the evening of Oct. 7, Elasar recalled, he received a phone call from an old army buddy, now a IDF brigadier general, telling him to take his wife and children and head south. The friend, whom Elasar asked not be identified, warned that Hezbollah was poised to launch a long-planned Oct. 7-style attack of its own.

"Promise me now, you will leave and not come back for a month," the general said, according to Elasar.

Amit Elasar (Andrew Tobin)

Ofer Moskovich, 58, an avocado farmer, said he received a similar warning ahead of the evacuation of his kibbutz, Misgav Am, about 50 miles inland. An IDF official alerted the community that Hezbollah planned to start the invasion there, he said.

"Most of the people are afraid to go back now in this situation," he told the Free Beacon. "We're afraid of the tunnels."

About a year before Oct. 7, Moskovich said, he woke up at 3 a.m. to the sound of drilling under his house. His neighbor had reported such late-night noises for years. He said the IDF, which previously uncovered cross-border tunnels that it said Hezbollah planned to use in an attack, investigated but never shared any findings.

Moskovich doubted whether Israel could decisively win a war against Hezbollah, a much more formidable enemy than Hamas. He noted that two Israeli wars in Lebanon, in 1982 and 2006, and nearly two decades of IDF occupation of the south of the country, ending in 2000, had failed to achieve lasting calm.

"We don't need any more wars," Moskovich said. "We don't need any more dead soldiers."

Moskovich, with IDF permission, has for the past month driven into the evacuated area almost every weekday to harvest his avocados. He said he would never abandon his farm or his kibbutz. But he has advised his three adult daughters not to move back to the north for at least a few years, saying, "For now, let's wait."

Few Israelis are eager for war in the north. According to an omnibus poll by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researcher Nimrod Nir, 70 percent of Jewish Israelis, including 73 percent of northerners, back U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at moving the group back from the border. Only 20 percent of Jewish Israelis say a major military operation in the north is a precondition for residents to return, polling by Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies found.

But there is something like a national consensus that the threat from Hezbollah has become too big to tolerate. Sixty-eight percent of Israeli Jews want more aggressive IDF action against the group, with 42 percent advocating "broad military activity even at the cost of regional war," according to the INSS polling. Sixty-seven percent say diplomacy alone will not enable northerners to come home.

"There's a desire to focus on the south and finish what we wanted to do with Hamas in Gaza," said Mizrahi, a senior researcher at the INSS. "Then, we can look to the north, maybe not now, maybe in a few months, maybe in a few years."

Carmit Valensi, the head of the INSS's Northern Arena Program, noted that the IDF has already had some success in pushing Hezbollah back from the border with air strikes, and she said many Israeli decision-makers hoped to finish the job without triggering full-scale war.

"We're struggling to defeat Hamas. So you can only imagine how challenging it will be the case of Hezbollah, where they have like 10 times more munitions and capabilities than Hamas," Valensi told the Free Beacon. "I think we should be very cautious and responsible in calculating our ability to launch a war against the group."

Giora Salz, 68, the chairman of the Upper Galilee Regional Council, which represents 29 kibbutzim in the north, said Israel should give Hezbollah an ultimatum: Withdraw from our border by June, or we will push you back. Salz predicted that at least 90 percent of his more than 10,000 displaced constituents would return under his plan. But if the status quo stretches into the fall, all bets are off, he said. Families will need to make plans for the upcoming school year, and many would start new lives outside of the north.

"That would be very bad, very bad," Salz told the Free Beacon. "It would take us years to bring people back."

The Israeli government referred questions about the situation in the north to the IDF, which did not comment.

Elasar, who relocated his family to an apartment tower just outside the evacuated area, said he would not stay in the north much longer under the circumstances.

"I'm sorry to say it, but we need a war. Otherwise, we're not getting out of this situation," he said. "We made a paradise here, a fragile paradise, and it will be again. But now is the time of the sword. So, let's make it the time of the sword—the south and north."

Yoram Yitzhaki (Andrew Tobin)

Yitzhaki joked he would stay in Hanita even if the kibbutz were ruled by Hezbollah. He is waiting for his wife and two young adult daughters to feel safe enough to return along with the rest of the community.

In the meantime, he has been taking care of his neighbors’ empty homes. Sometimes, he checks on a piece of property down the street that he bought for his eldest daughter.

Asked if the daughter still plans to live in Hanita, Yitzhaki took a long drag of his cigarette.

"Well," he said, "there’s plenty of time for that."