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Lebanese border towns caught in Hezbollah-Israel crossfire

'What do we have to do with it?': Lebanese border towns caught in Hezbollah-Israel crossfire
6 min read
South Lebanon
14 October, 2023
Some residents of Lebanon's border towns feel they are being dragged into a war they have no say in.

For a Thursday afternoon, Charbel's barbershop is unusually empty. Three men sit and smoke in the shop, one of the few open storefronts in the Lebanese town of Rmaych, a small town just over 2 kilometres from the border with Israel.

It is not just the barbershop that is empty, the town of about 9,000 has lost nearly half of its population in the past three days.

The residents that fled were pushed out by the spectre of a looming war with Israel, a war whose approach is marked by the sound of advancing artillery shells and the constant drone of aircraft above.

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Pro-Iran group Hezbollah and Israel have engaged in steadily escalating tit-for-tat rocket exchanges over the border for the past five days. Neither side has said they want war, but the risk of miscalculation is high.

"Those with children have left, they're worried about what's going to happen next. In the 2006 war, bread and water ran out," Charbel al-Alaam, told The New Arab. He added that he does not expect a war to happen, but that the decision "is out of our hands."

Rmaych is the largest Maronite Christian town in the south and is one of the few towns in the area that does not support the group Hezbollah, which controls most of the southern border.

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While they enjoy good relations with their neighbours, the townspeople of Rmaych cannot help but feel as if they are being dragged into a war that is not their own.

"No one has asked us if we want war or not, they use as fuel. We have nothing to do with this," Ramon, another resident of Rmaych, told The New Arab.

The town priest, Najib al-Amil, says that not even Hezbollah controls whether or not there will be a war.

As a priest, he believes the decision will be left to higher powers – that is Iran and the US.

Town priest, Najib al-Amil, says that not even Hezbollah controls whether or not there will be a war

Despite not asking for permission, Israeli bombs continued to fall, with an attempted incursion from Lebanese territory provoking over two hours of airstrikes on the area surrounding Rmaych on Monday.

In Aita asShaab, a town 3 kilometres away which was hit by Monday's shelling, the idea of war is met with a mix of excitement and bravado.

"So far, this has just been a game, nothing else. We want a war, we want to liberate Palestine. Everyone in the village is a civilian, but when the war starts, we will become fighters," Jizar Haidar, a 32-year-old resident who had fought for Hezbollah in Syria in the past, told The New Arab.

Other residents say they agree. The decision for war, they say, is in the leader of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah's hands. And he has their complete confidence.

"We cannot tell Hezbollah what to do, but we think there will be an escalation and that more is to come," Haidar says.

On Friday, Deputy Hezbollah head Naim Qassem said that the militia is "fully prepared" and it will "take part in this operation, according to our plans and vision, in due time," at a rally in Beirut.

Still, despite the cool disposition in the face of the impending violence, life has not carried on as normal even in pro-Hezbollah towns like Aiita asShaab.

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Haidar was meant to get married on Thursday, but he has had to cancel his wedding.

"I had reserved the place, and paid $7,000 for the wedding, all for nothing. Now my wife is mad at me, what can I do?" he says, chuckling.

In the town of Dhahyra to the east where the Israeli border wall is just meters away, the war is no game, it is already a reality.

Ali Sweid picks through the remnants of his bombed-out home after an Israeli shell hit it on Wednesday.

The windows are blown out, the doors off their hinges, and all of the kitchen appliances are melted from the heat of the blast. Both his son and daughter were injured in the explosion but have since recovered.

"Why did we get hit? I’m a peaceful man, not with or against either side. If someone came and shot against Israel from here, what do I have to do with them?" Sweid, a retired UNIFIL cook, told The New Arab.

Ali Sweid picks through the remnants of his bombed-out home after an Israeli shell hit it on Wednesday

Sweid built the house two years ago, using the money he saved through his forty-year career with UNIFIL.

On Wednesday morning, Hezbollah shot a rocket at two Israeli soldiers patrolling near the border wall, killing one and critically injuring the other. Israel retaliated by shelling the town, hitting homes and a mosque, as well as injuring three civilians.

The town does not support Hezbollah, though it is under its control. Its residents speak of the militia in hushed tones, though they resent being a staging place for its attacks.

"You have from Naqoura to the Golan, why don't they use another village for their attacks?" Sweid asked, not specifying Hezbollah by name.

Memories of a past war renewed

In the 2006 war with Israel, Rmaych became a safe haven for civilians in the area. The town's population jumped threefold as they welcomed the displaced for the 33-day-long war.

Israel avoided shelling the area, residents said, as Hezbollah did not use it for attacks.

In 2006, the war was a surprise, happening with no warning. This time, the town has time to prepare.

Milad Al-Alaam, the mayor, has worked alongside the church and Red Cross to convert a secondary school into a field hospital.

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Ten hospital beds and a handful of medical supplies have been placed in the main hall of the school, bought by donations from the townspeople.

"Last week, we had classes, but we had to close the school because of the situation. If something happens, we can stabilise the patients here before they go to the hospital in [the town of] Bint Jbeil," al-Alaam told The New Arab.

Ten hospital beds and a handful of medical supplies have been placed in the main hall of the school, bought by donations from the townspeople

Al-Alaam and other residents are proud of the role their town played in providing shelter to their displaced neighbours and have said that if conflict breaks out again, any Lebanese who needs help is welcome.

"When the shelling started in Aita asShaab [on Monday], they told the people to run to Rmaych. We would welcome them with food, and water," Father al-Amil said.

Still, while preparing for the worst-case scenario keeps them busy, a sense of helplessness still hangs over the town.

"The people are scared, families are making their children sleep in closets in case of a bombing at night," the Father says.

"We are just pawns."

William Christou is The New Arab’s correspondent in Beirut, covering the politics of the Levant and Mediterranean. Previously he worked for Al Jazeera in Doha and Syria Direct in Amman

Follow him on Twitter: @Will_Christou