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Rocket exchanges between Israel and Hezbollah hit new highs in the past week


Israel's military will start this week a daily pause in fighting along one main road in Southern Gaza to allow for aid delivery. But at Israel's northern border with Lebanon, Israel and Hezbollah have been fighting since the war in Gaza began last October. That exchange of fire hit a new high last week. NPR's Jane Arraf and Kat Lonsdorf were on either side of the border, and they bring us these two scenarios. So we'll start with Jane in Southern Lebanon.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: We're traveling along the cease-fire line between Lebanon and Israel with an Italian contingent of U.N. peacekeepers.

BRUNO VIO: Now we are on the main road in the South, close to the blue line, where obviously activity has been the focus from October.

ARRAF: That's Lt. Col. Bruno Vio. The blue line is the painstakingly negotiated cease-fire line drawn up two decades ago after Israel invaded and then withdrew from Lebanon. Since the start of the Gaza War, the blue line has been the focus of renewed attacks between Israel and the Iran-backed Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. The convoy of U.N. and Lebanese armored vehicles are the only things on the road.

VIO: You can see.

ARRAF: It was completely destroyed.

We stop at the town of Yarine, completely abandoned. Ninety thousand Lebanese have been displaced in South Lebanon. We stay on the main road because of land mines. About 400 Lebanese have been killed in Israeli border attacks since October. In Israel, about 40 people have been killed.

So what happened here?

ALLESANDRO CREPY: Here, a building was destroyed by an air strike.

ARRAF: That's company Commander Alessandro Crepy. There's a sign pointing to what was a medical dispensary. And outside a cafe, a shattered cooler, still full of beer. The peacekeeping mission is known as UNIFIL, the U.N.'s interim force for Lebanon. The Italians are among 48 countries involved. To give you some indication of how long this conflict has been going on, U.N. soldiers have been patrolling here trying to de-escalate tensions since 1978. In the past few years, things were relatively calm along the border, but then came the war in Gaza. We stop at a base and climb the rungs of an observation tower, where a peacekeeper looks out through binoculars past a giant Israeli flag.

I'm standing on top of this tower literally just a few hundred feet from a tower on the Israeli side. This is the base for U.N. peacekeepers that's closest to the blue line.

Cpt. Crepy points out the Israeli city of Nahariyya below. There are occasional thuds - part of a Hezbollah rocket attack on Israeli bases near Nahariyya in retaliation for Israel's recent killing of a senior commander.

CREPY: We are hearing right now in this moment of this interview some explosion due to artillery or air strike in the air operation. They are not so distant from us.

ARRAF: We take shelter at a base, not far from a conference room, where in less hostile times, Lebanese and Israeli officials sat across from each other passing messages through UNIFIL. Those meetings stopped, though, in October and don't look like they will resume any time soon.


Now to Kat Lonsdorf on the other side of that border.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: It doesn't take long to feel the fighting. We arrive in Kiryat Shmona, tucked high up in the northeast corner of Israel, early in the morning. A man named Ayre stops to give us directions. He didn't want to give his full name because he's concerned for his safety. And while he's talking, the hill in front of us starts billowing with smoke. Ayre doesn't even pause. He just keeps talking. He's used to this, he says. He hasn't left because of his 7-year-old dog, Dango. He says Dango would be too anxious in a hotel room if they evacuated.

This neighborhood is full of three-story apartment buildings, but it's eerily quiet. There are very few cars. Several buildings have rocket damage. There's a bomb shelter on every street. The town, once home to 24,000 people, now has less than 10% of its usual population. Down the street, we run into 58-year-old Sarah Benhamil (ph).

SARAH BENHAMIL: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: She tells us she evacuated with her family, but she drives back every weekday to work at the local supermarket. It's the only one still operating in town.

BENHAMIL: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Sarah says the people living here are mostly elderly or handicapped.

BENHAMIL: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Sometimes there are ten or more explosions a day, she says. It's constant, and really scary.

She points to a house across the street. There's a big gaping hole in the roof covered by a tarp. Just last month, she says, a rocket crashed into it. She was in her kitchen, and the explosion blew her across the room. I ask her, why doesn't she just leave?

BENHAMIL: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Because someone needs to live here, and it's us, she says defiantly. Kiryat Shmona was once a Palestinian town called Al-Khalissa before the war in 1948, when Palestinians were forced to leave. Many of those families still live across the border in Lebanon, hoping to come back someday. Downtown is completely shuttered, save for one schwarma restaurant still operating. It's packed with Israeli soldiers at lunchtime.

At City Hall, we meet with Mayor Avichai Stern. He's taking his meetings in the underground bunker because there's been so many sirens.

AVICHAI STERN: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Mayor Stern tells us the people of his town want to come home. But he says the only way they'll do that is if the northern threat Hezbollah is, quote, "eliminated." He says he doesn't want war, but in his opinion, diplomacy is not an option. So it's not if war happens, but when.

We get back in the car and head west to Nahariyya, where Jane Arraf is just on the other side in Lebanon. As we drive, the hills on either side of us billow with smoke in several places - fires started by recent rocket strikes. Nahariyya hasn't been evacuated yet. Most residents have stayed, including Yaffa and Moshe Yahon. They've just installed a state-of-the-art safe room in their house, which they show us.

YAFFA YAHON: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: This room will protect against shrapnel from rockets, has a bulletproof door, and an air filtration system in case of chemical attack. The whole thing cost around $100,000. But they say it's worth it. If it means their three kids and three grandkids can still visit and feel safe. They don't want another war either, but they also think that it's the only way to restore calm, to get Hezbollah to back down.

YAHON: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Just earlier today, Yaffa says she watched a little girl run to a bomb shelter as a siren wailed. She says the little girl was shaking. Kids shouldn't be living like that, she says. Nahariyya has a beautiful beach-side walkway, and it would normally be packed with people. This evening, a few still stroll along. One man walks a small dog, a young couple sits to take in the sunset. Suddenly, a siren sounds. The man stops to comfort his dog. The young couple glaces around uneasily. And then life continues.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Kat Lonsdorf in Northern Israel and NPR's Jane Arraf in Southern Lebanon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.