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Israeli town knows conflict with Iran-linked militants, hopes more is not to come

Israeli town knows conflict with Iran-linked militants, hopes more is not to come.
Dr. Yossi Mansharof: Hezbollah does not want to drag Lebanon into another war with Israel.

KIRYAT SHMONA, Israel — This town, which lies just more than a mile from the border with Lebanon, is known for its clean air, snowcapped mountain views, and bucolic way of life. It is also one of the most-rocketed towns in the country.

Perched on the lower slopes of the Naftali Mountains before tumbling out into the bird-watching haven of the Hula Valley, Kiryat Shmona sits in an area noted for its tranquil beauty as well as its violent past, and the juxtaposition is inescapable here.

So after news emerged last week that the Trump administration had killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, alarm rippled through the hilly streets here, on the front line of conflicts with Hezbollah, the fearsome Iran-backed Lebanese militant group.

“The first day people were on edge,” said Mazi Malka, a former special education teacher who now manages a service that responds to the needs of the town’s 24,000 residents, from fixing sewage leaks to responding to rocket attacks. “It’s scary, we’re only human.”

The 47-year-old single mother recalls how a rocket tore through her home during the 2006 war with Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful regional proxy. Malka had evacuated farther south and only found out her house had been bombed from the news as television cameras captured the wreckage.

The next day, she drove north to sift through the wreckage, salvaging some of her 8-year-old son’s toys. Today, Malka also has a daughter, Yaheli, 11, while her son, Sahar, is serving in the Air Force in northern Israel.

“I hope very much that she won’t have to go through what Sahar went through,” she said, referring to Yaheli.

This is a legitimate fear. Kiryat Shmona is about as far north as an Israeli can go without straying into enemy territory, and is much closer to Beirut and Damascus than it is to Jerusalem. Militarized borders and years of tension and conflict with Iran-backed fighters in Lebanon and Syria mean the town’s residents have learned to live on alert.

But as the days tick by after Soleimani’s death, and the border between Lebanon and Israel remains quiet, Malka and others here said they are carrying on life as normal. This is not the first time, nor do they think the last, that world events has provoked anxiety for residents.

When NBC News visited Kiryat Shmona this week, a cacophony of birdsong rather than the throbbing hum of military activity filled the air.

“We know the threat exists, it’s in the air, it did not go away,” said Malka, whose cherry-red lips matched her manicured nails. “But as human beings you cannot be hysterical all the time.”

Hysterical no, but wary and prepared yes.

Rockets have battered Kiryat Shmona for decades. Since 1974, more than 5,000 Katyusha rockets have been fired at the town, injuring more than 500 people and damaging some 8,900 properties, according to the municipality. Over the years, 43 civilians have been killed as a result of the violence and more than 600 have been treated for shock and anxiety. Bomb shelters have been open to the public on 1,964 days since 1974.

During the 18 years that followed Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, known in Israel as the Lebanon War, residents have often abandoned their homes and businesses to stay with relatives in central or southern Israel until it was deemed safe to return.

Now, after decades of on-off conflict, Kiryat Shmona municipal authorities say they are prepared for any imminent attack. They have even won an award for the town’s emergency preparedness from Israel’s government.

The town has renovated tens of bomb shelters, installing Wi-Fi to entertain easily bored millennials and air conditioners to make conflict more bearable. And in a warehouse on a shabby industrial site in town, flak jackets, helmets, flashlights, mattresses and blankets are among equipment meticulously boxed up and ready.

On Friday, as it became clear that Soleimani’s killing might prompt a response from Iran somewhere in the region, Dekel Arye, head of the town’s security, convened his team to ensure those needed in case of an emergency were present over the weekend.

“No one here wants to start a war, but if a war is imposed on us, we know how to deal with it,” he said, as he led a tour around Kiryat Shmona’s version of a situation room.

But Arye, who served 26 years in the army, said he was skeptical that an Iranian response will be delivered via Hezbollah and aimed at somewhere like Kiryat Shmona. He was among the residents of this town who said they drew confidence from the strength of Israel’s military as a deterrence, as well as an understanding that Hezbollah was in no position to provoke the ire of Israel — an assessment backed up by Iran watchers and former defense officials.

Speaking for the first time since Soleimani’s killing, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah focused his wrath Sunday on America, telling his supporters that it was U.S. troops in the Middle East who would “pay the price” for the general’s killing.

Iran retaliated for Soleimani’s killing by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces on Wednesday local time. Later that day, Trump said Tehran appeared “to be standing down” after the attacks.

Hezbollah does not want to drag Lebanon into another war with Israel, said Yossi Mansharof, an Iran researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

Many Lebanese civilians would blame the group for more conflict, which it could not afford at a time when its popularity has been weakened by months of anti-government protests across the country, he added.

Increasingly part of the establishment — the man tapped last month to be Lebanon’s next prime minister is backed by the group and factions allied with Hezbollah dominated the last government — the militants did not escape the protesters’ wrath.

“Hezbollah’s status generally in Lebanon and mainly in the Shiite society, which is its political base, is at a historic low,” said Mansharof, referring to the branch of Islam that Iran aims to promote throughout the world. “Dragging Lebanon into a war — it might spell its political elimination, maybe also in the military field.”

Still, analysts warn that the threat from Hezbollah cannot be entirely dismissed.

It has increased its arsenal significantly since the 2006 war, amassing an estimated 130,000 rockets and missiles, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

The group’s role in the Syrian conflict, backing President Bashar al-Assad, has also raised concerns about its acquisition of more sophisticated precision-guided missiles whether from Syria, Iran or Russia.

Image: Israeli artillery convoy An artillery convoy moves up near Israel’s border with Lebanon in August, 1995, after Hezbollah Katyusha rockets hit Kiryat Shmona. Reuters file

The leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard also threatened Tuesday to “set ablaze” places supported by the United States, sparking cries of “Death to Israel” from the crowd of supporters gathered during Soleimani’s funeral procession in his hometown of Kernan, according to The Associated Press.

And miscalculations can happen.

Nearly everyone here in this town has a story to tell about how their building was hit or a friend or a relative badly hurt. And they sometimes employ dark humor when they recall the past.

“They kept joking when the army got out of Lebanon, that they were going to give us cassettes with the sounds of airplanes and helicopters so we could sleep at night, so it wouldn’t be too quiet,” recalled Tehila Kronenblum, 37, who grew up in Kiryat Shmona and lives here with her husband and two children.

As a child, she said, she was never afraid of the rockets — it was something she just grew up with, but having her own children had stirred her maternal instincts.

Kronenblum, a physical therapist, described how once in second or third grade she was on her way back from school when she heard the sirens and rushed to the nearest building to hide.

“I kept thinking what was my mother thinking about where I am,” she said. “I can’t even imagine something like this today, not knowing where my child is when there are bombs falling.”

Many also said they were also concerned about relatives serving in the military, with several people recalling how on Thursday night their loved ones were unexpectedly called back to nearby bases only for them to wake the next morning to the news of Soleimani’s killing.

“My brother is in the army and he’s on the border, this is what stresses me out most,” Kronenblum said. “I know I have a place to hide and I can run away but he can’t.”

Others said that either themselves or a relative is still plagued by memories of past violence and alerts.

“I still take anti-anxiety pills,” said Yaniv Lankri, who works at the local mall as a security guard, recalling his experiences as a child of the whistle of rockets over his head. “It brings back memories.”

By Saphora Smith and Yael Factor, NBC News, 09.01.2020



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