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Israel Is Ready for Another War

Last week, my British Airways flight from London to Tel Aviv made a stop not indicated on my ticket. While we waited on the runway, I heard concerned murmurs in Hebrew from fellow passengers. “Some of you have noticed that your phones indicate that we are at Beirut International Airport,” a flight attendant said over the intercom, in a reassuring tone. For an Israeli, an unexpected stop in Beirut—at an airport recently accused of stockpiling and trafficking weapons for Hezbollah—is at best awkward, and at worst the prelude to a long subterranean stay chained to a radiator. “We are not in Beirut,” she continued. “The GPS here is scrambled for security purposes. We are in Larnaca, Cyprus, for a crew change.”

For the past month, Israel and Hezbollah—the Iran-backed Shiite militia that dominates southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley—have been exchanging heavy fire across their shared border. The trend is toward war. To hinder GPS-guided attacks, Israel has spoofed GPS signals, so smartphones sometimes indicate that they are at the Beirut airport, when they are in fact in Israel or Cyprus. Cyprus is on the spoofing list because last week Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said that if the Republic of Cyprus—a European Union member—lets Israel use its airports, then “the resistance will deal with it as part of the war.” Now fear is spreading around the region generously: Israelis are contemplating an onslaught of 100,000 Hezbollah rockets, Lebanese are preparing for the collapse of their country upon an Israeli invasion, and the European Union has to deal with the possibility of the first war on its territory since its establishment.

[Read: Iran’s proxies are out of control]

But Nasrallah’s bellicose language masks a peculiar reality: Hezbollah does not want a war, and Israel—whose international standing has tumbled as a result of its prosecution of war on another front—does. In a week of visiting the north and talking with Israeli politicians and generals, I found a country not just resigned to the opening of a war in the north but in some cases annoyed that committing to one is taking so long.

Six months ago, after Israel evacuated civilians from northern border areas deemed too difficult to defend, I asked a senior Israeli military official whether Israel could sustain that evacuation, which had affected more than 200,000 people. He said that Hezbollah, too, had had to evacuate or militarize a huge portion of its territory, and that Israel was a richer and more robust country. Now many people in the area talk as if they think Israel and Hezbollah have an appointment with destiny.

The lack of reliable GPS was in some ways a journalistic blessing: Rather than navigate northern Israel by paper maps, I picked up Israeli hitchhikers and used them as human satnav systems, then between turns asked them what they thought of the situation. All were civilians. Not all were civil. “This is what we get from an incompetent government,” one said, just about spitting on the floor of my rental car in disgust. He said successive governments had gutted the military, handed out freebies to undeserving constituencies like ultra-Orthodox religious students, and left the state incapable of defending its territory. A woman from Katzrin, an Israeli city in the Golan (“turn right here”), described seeing the wreckage of a car near where she lived that had either been hit directly by a rocket or had Hezbollah rocket fragments rain down on it after an Israeli missile intercept. Either way, she was rattled to see the wreckage, and she said that the status quo was intolerable.

The largest city evacuated by Israel is Kiryat Shmona, which had 22,000 people in October and is now mostly vacant. The road remains open, and the city is not quite zombie-apocalypse empty, because people keep coming in to maintain their property. But the businesses are nearly all shut, and overhead one regularly sees the smoke trails of missiles and anti-missiles, which are reminders that no sane person would live here under the current circumstances. I saw shopping malls whose windows were crusted with months of dust. Under a statue of a lion on the main street, someone had spray-painted defiantly in Hebrew: WE ARE STILL HERE. But the traffic was so sparse that I could stop my car in the middle of the street to take a picture, without inconveniencing anyone.

Historically the frontier status of Kiryat Shmona—and Metula, even farther north—had been a source of pride. Metula was one of the first Zionist agricultural communes. Now it is abandoned. Kiryat Shmona had been a stronghold of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, because of the Israeli right’s promises of security. Now its residents are having to consider the possibility that they will not be allowed back in time for September, the start of their children’s school year. That symbolic deadline will for many of them be the moment they admit that their families have to get comfortable elsewhere, and may never go back. Netanyahu visited Kiryat Shmona earlier this month and declared that Israel is “prepared for very intense action in the north,” and that it would restore security “one way or another.”

Michael Oren, the Israeli historian and former ambassador to Washington, told me that if the current circumstances continue, Israel will revert to a condition similar to the fragile years of the 1950s and ’60s. “Most of our borders were not settled by civilians,” he told me. “They were settled by agricultural troops, and over time they became kibbutzim and towns. The only people who will get to live in Metula now are soldiers.” He was pessimistic about the country’s ability to reverse this process without war. “I’m beginning to think we have no choice.”

If Hezbollah wanted a full-on war, it could already have prompted one—but since firing the opening shots after October 7, it has absorbed more painful blows than it has dealt. Israel has killed more than 300 Hezbollah fighters in the past nine months, many of them in targeted strikes, and has lost only a handful of its own. Hezbollah’s purpose is to deter and punish Israel on behalf of Iran over the long term, not to provoke a war that could lead to its own destruction.

[Read: Hezbollah goes to the theater]

Conversely, if Hezbollah wished to avert an Israeli invasion, some say, it could just stop firing missiles into Israel and allow residents to return to their homes and farms. But a promise from Hezbollah to stop firing rockets would not, under Israel’s post–October 7 doctrine, be enough. After Hamas’s attack, Israel decided that an enemy’s promises are not sufficient, and instead Israel must degrade the enemy’sto invade and slaughter Israeli communities. Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser, told me that the principle applies equally to the north and south. “It’s no longer about what an enemy has in its mind,” he said. “It’s not about ideology. It’s about what they can do.” He said that Hezbollah would need to retreat from the border, far enough to prevent it from launching a surprise attack resembling Hamas’s on October 7.

Demanding that Hezbollah withdraw from southern Lebanon is tantamount to asking Hezbollah to admit defeat in a war that has not yet happened, and that it has spent decades preparing for. To Nasrallah, that would be personally mortifying. The chasm between the two sides’ positions is wide. It is unlikely to narrow through diplomacy and negotiation.


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