Israeli artillery soldiers fire a mobile howitzer in the north of Israel, near the border with Lebanon. (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Matti Friedman: What If the Real War in Israel Hasn’t Even Started?

Take the current war with Hamas and multiply it by ten. That’s what war with Hezbollah would look like. And Israelis are not asking if it will begin, but when.

SHLOMI, Israel — The undercurrents of Israeli life at this moment are darker than I’ve ever seen them: the daily photos of smiling young people, taken at some happy moment before their deaths in combat; glimpses of Israeli girls buried alive in Palestinian tunnels, a short drive from our border and utterly out of reach; a geriatric Israeli leadership uninspiring at best, deceitful at worst; devastation in Gaza; a wall of hate in the Middle East and in growing parts of the West. 

But a central part of the dread in Israel is the possibility that the real war hasn’t even started.

Since October 7, most eyes have been on Israel’s south, but as the prophecy from the Book of Jeremiah reads, “the evil will come from the north.” The north means Lebanon, a beautiful, tragic shell of a country under the sway of Hezbollah, the “Party of God,” a fanatic Shia army funded and trained by Iran. This is the northern link of the Iranian encirclement of Israel, a strategy that often escapes Western news consumers accustomed to the fiction that the conflict here is “Israeli-Palestinian.” 

When I spoke to one veteran military observer of the northern front, he used the term 10X—by which he meant that to imagine an all-out war with Hezbollah, take the current war with Hamas and multiply it by ten. 

The Hezbollah strike force, known as Radwan, is bigger, better trained, and better equipped than the Hamas equivalent, the Nukhba, which was responsible for the carnage of October 7. If the Palestinians have fired 9,000 rockets since the beginning of the war, Hezbollah is thought to have an arsenal of 140,000—not including drones and mortars—with all of Israel in range. The army expects more than 4,000 launches a day, a scale Israeli civilians have never experienced. While this is going on, much of Lebanon will be laid waste by our air force and artillery. “If people truly understood what the war with Hezbollah will mean,” one officer told me this week, “everyone would be doing every possible thing in their power to find a diplomatic solution.”

Hezbollah has already lost more than 170 men in cross-border fighting since October 7, compared to 15 fatalities on the Israeli side. But what Hezbollah has already achieved, even without a full-scale war, becomes clear if you drive up to the border. 

My parents live in Nahariya, a town on the Mediterranean coast about a two-hour drive from Tel Aviv and ten minutes from the Lebanon frontier. (The distance between Gaza and Lebanon is just 110 miles.) Things feel almost normal here: the local mafiosos convene at the usual café on the main drag; the Russian seniors conduct their weighty dialogues on the benches by City Hall. But as soon as you leave north on the highway, the cars thin out and many of the remaining ones are olive drab. There’s a new checkpoint on the road. 

Past this point, nearly all Israeli civilians—more than 60,000 people along the length of the border—are gone, moved indefinitely to hotels and temporary accommodations. They’ve been displaced since October 7 and don’t know when they’ll return, a state of affairs unprecedented in Israeli history. A new report from welfare services warns of “signs of fatigue, impatience, and emotional instability resulting from forced communal living and the lack of private family space,” with rising rates of depression and violence. But you don’t need a report to imagine what it would be like to be stuck with your kids in a hotel room for months, with every other room occupied by people in the same position.

By their empty homes on the border ridge, tanks swivel their turrets on kibbutz lawns. Infantrymen bed down on the floors of deserted kindergartens. Some of the houses are blackened shells. Earlier this month, a grandmother and her adult son were blown up by a Hezbollah missile, a Russian Kornet, in their living room at the village of Kfar Yuval.

More than 200 square miles of civilian landscape in the north—2.5 percent of Israel’s territory, in addition to an area nearly as large that has been cleared around Gaza—has been evacuated and militarized, and the country effectively truncated by Hezbollah. For an Israeli citizen, Israel ends a few miles short of where it did on October 6. 

Inside the evacuation zone, it feels like some kind of strange bomb has gone off, the kind that leaves the buildings intact but vaporizes the people. 

In the town of Shlomi, I parked by the always bustling Market Warehouse supermarket, where I went shopping a few months ago. It was shuttered and dark in the middle of the day. So was Cedars, the local Lebanese-style restaurant. When the radio news came on, I heard the head of Northern Command say we’ve hit more than 150 Hezbollah teams and promise that his forces were “more prepared than ever” for war in the north. But from the eerie streets of Shlomi, deserted for more than three months, it didn’t feel like we had the upper hand. 

Lieutenant Colonel Dotan is an officer in the 300th Brigade, responsible for the western sector of the border, the part near my parents’ town. (The army asked that I use only his first name.) The soldiers on the Lebanon frontier, almost all of them reservists, have spent the months since October 7 in the bushes and firing positions of the border, facing mortar shells, anti-tank rockets, drones—including one that hit the headquarters of Northern Command—and four cross-border infiltrations on foot, all of which were foiled. “Hezbollah is a serious enemy with advanced weapons,” he said. “They’ve done a lot of training, and not only in Lebanon.” 

Israelis like Lt. Col. Dotan, who is 54, and me acquired a healthy regard for Hezbollah during our military service in a swath of south Lebanon that Israel held as a buffer after the Lebanon invasion of 1982, and which we called “the security zone.” At first, the zone was meant to protect people near the border from infiltrations by Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists. But as Iranian power rose the enemy became Hezbollah, which was set up and trained by the Revolutionary Guards. I served in the security zone as a radioman and platoon sergeant. 

This overlooked war, which Israelis never even bothered to name when it was going on, was in fact one of the labs that produced what we now think of as “war”—not the movement of divisions across territory or battles between states, but armed groups operating in the ruins of failed states; hit-and-run attacks using IEDs, which Hezbollah did much to pioneer; suicide bombers, which Hezbollah introduced in the Middle East; the use of video as a propaganda weapon, which Hezbollah employed to great effect two decades before ISIS; and the exploitation of the civilian landscape to conceal the military landscape, with all of the consequences for innocent people.

What happened in the security zone isn’t discussed much in Israel but retains a hold on those of us who served there when we were young. We learned lessons about the limits of military power—but also about the limits of our ability to placate our enemies. Many of us also learned, in a strange way, to love Lebanon, which is a bewitching place. The echoes of that experience matter now because it’s men who began their service in the security zone as teenagers who now run the Israeli army, and who confront this new war as generals.

In May 2000, facing rising casualties and a protest movement led by the mothers of Israeli soldiers, the army abandoned the security zone overnight and pulled back to the border. This seemed to me, and to most Israelis, like the right thing to do, but it didn’t end the war. Hezbollah only grew stronger. We let it happen, as we did with Hamas in Gaza, because the alternatives seemed worse. An all-out war would have been so costly, both in lives and in the kind of disproportionate international frenzy that follows any Israeli operation, that we decided to live alongside Hezbollah and tell ourselves we’d contained them. 

Fast-forward to early 2024, and Israel has a security zone again—except now it’s inside Israel.

Lt. Col. Dotan’s home is at a kibbutz in the evacuation zone. He remained there after the October 7 call-up, in uniform, while moving his kids farther south. From Hezbollah’s firing positions in the underbrush and the homes of Lebanese villages, the organization controls much of the fence and can fire at will. That means Israelis can’t go home unless the fighters are pushed back, far to the north, by diplomacy or by war. Allowing our civilians to return is the Israeli goal in the north, not destroying Hezbollah—which just isn’t possible, not only because of the group’s military power but because of the way it’s woven into the civil and political life of Lebanon. 

Everyone would prefer diplomacy. Things are far too dark here already. But the distancing of Hezbollah by diplomacy was supposed to have happened long ago, by Security Council resolution after the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006, and proved meaningless. The Lebanese Army is too weak to control its own territory, and a United Nations peacekeeping force has been ineffectual. 

I’ve been speaking to reserve soldiers, some still in uniform, others newly discharged from the alleys and booby traps of Gaza City. They know what it means if we go to war in Lebanon. But they don’t say “if,” they say “when,” and expect to be there in the spring.

Matti Friedman is a Jerusalem-based columnist for The Free Press. He’s the author of four nonfiction books, including most recently, Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai. Read his Free Press piece “The Wisdom of Hamas,” and listen to his talk with Bari on Honestly about the time Leonard Cohen visited Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Follow him on X @MattiFriedman.

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