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As conflict on Israel's northern border grows, residents agonize over whether to stay

Israeli police inspect the area where an anti-tank missile fired from Lebanon landed in Kiryat Shmona, Israel, on Monday. Kiryat Shmona was evacuated as hostilities with Hezbollah escalated following the Oct. 7 attacks, but some residents have chosen to remain.
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Israeli police inspect the area where an anti-tank missile fired from Lebanon landed in Kiryat Shmona, Israel, on Monday. Kiryat Shmona was evacuated as hostilities with Hezbollah escalated following the Oct. 7 attacks, but some residents have chosen to remain.

KIRYAT SHMONA, Israel — The strike hit mid-morning, right in the center of town.

As a soldier swept the area for shrapnel, abnormal life continued like normal earlier this week. In Kiryat Shmona, the largest city in this far northern tip of Israel, less than two miles from Lebanon's border, people are used to this kind of thing.

It was an anti-tank missile launched from Lebanon, a soldier at the scene said — aimed, perhaps, at the communications towers lining the steep hill that separates Kiryat Shmona from the Lebanese border.

Instead, the missile soared over the hill and down into the city below, striking the largest intersection along the main highway, causing little damage and even less disruption. Within 30 minutes, the caution tape was taken down, and the scene had emptied.

"We deal with different cases of this type every day," said police captain Fadi Halabi.

People pass by a restaurant that was destroyed in a Hezbollah rocket attack in November in Kiryat Shmona.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
People pass by a restaurant that was destroyed in a Hezbollah rocket attack in November in Kiryat Shmona.

Most of this city's 22,000 residents have long since evacuated, fleeing after the Oct. 7 attack by the militant group Hamas on southern Israel that touched off the current war.

For the few that remain, attacks like Monday's have become routine — especially over the past week, as rocket fire and aerial attacks from both sides of the border have ramped up after a strike in Lebanon's capital of Beirut killed a top Hamas official.

"It's not normal life for you, maybe, or for other people in the world, but it's my life," said Igor Potapov, 34, the employee of a shipping store who spoke calmly as blasts rang out from Israeli artillery firing at targets in Lebanon.

"I don't want it. I didn't choose it. But I won't leave from it," he said.

Israel and Hezbollah both say they are ready for war

Though Israel has not claimed credit for the Beirut strike, the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah has launched a retaliation, sending drone attacks and scores of rockets across the border. An initial barrage Saturday damaged an Israeli military base at Mount Meron; a second on Tuesday caused damage at the headquarters of Israel's Northern Command in Safed.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, said the Iran-backed group will respond "on the battlefield," a battlefield that residents of northern Israel fear could include their hometowns.

In turn, Israeli officials have increasingly vowed to keep the border region safe for its residents, even if that means a war.

"If Lebanon continues to serve as an active Iranian outpost, we will operate in southern Lebanon as in northern Gaza," Benny Gantz, a minister in Israel's emergency wartime cabinet, said Wednesday.

This week, Israel has stepped up its strikes on Hezbollah, using fighter jets, drones, helicopters and artillery to hit what it says are targets on militants and combat infrastructure in southern Lebanon.

Israel and Hezbollah agree that Israeli strikes over the past week have killed a dozen or more Hezbollah militants. In total, more than 20 civilians have been killed in southern Lebanon since Oct. 7, according to the U.N., and the conflict has displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes.

A ghost town

Now, across the border in Kiryat Shmona, there are as many Israeli soldiers in town as there are civilians. Parks are empty. Stores are closed. The city buses still run on schedule, empty of passengers. Neighborhood streets are coated with a dusting of fruit and leaves that have fallen from trees and laid on the road, undisturbed by cars. And at all hours is the constant soundtrack of conflict: military aircraft, artillery blasts and air raid alarms.

The empty parking lot of a stadium in Kiryat Shmona, Israel, is seen on Monday.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
The empty parking lot of a stadium in Kiryat Shmona, Israel, is seen on Monday.

"I'm here with butterflies in my stomach," said Tzipi Kuzibardov, an evacuee who made a brief trip to town to visit the bank, doing so "with lots and lots of fear, and quickly."

Her grandchildren cry when they hear the loud booms of the Israeli artillery, she said. But the small community where her family has evacuated is located near an air base, she said, and Hezbollah's recent strikes on Israel military bases makes them feel unsafe there, too.

"It's the people, the citizens, who end up suffering from this whole story of the war," she said. Hezbollah "don't want peace," she added. "They just want to expel us."

Most residents here left soon after Oct. 7, fearing that Hezbollah fighters would storm across the Lebanon border in an attack similar to the one Hamas inflicted on southern Israel that day.

Soon after the war began, the Israeli government began to pay for hotels for evacuees from border towns to stay in regions further from conflict. The high number of evacuations since Oct. 7 has helped keep casualty counts low in Kiryat Shmona; a strike in October injured two people, and two more were hurt in November. Across northern Israel, four civilians and nine soldiers have been killed since Oct. 7, according to media reports citing Israeli officials.

One neighbor stays, one neighbor leaves

What once felt to residents like a temporary, short-term displacement has dragged into its fourth month, and the long-simmering conflict with Hezbollah seems to only be worsening.

Before Oct. 7, Sisilya al-Ousi, 50, lived in an apartment on the top floor of a tall building. But in the early weeks of the war, she fell twice as she ran down the stairs to the building's basement bomb shelter.

Because Kiryat Shmona is so close to southern Lebanon, alarms here give residents only a few seconds of notice to seek shelter ahead of an incoming rocket.

"Once I hurt my back, and once I broke my teeth. I'm traumatized by being on the top floor," she said.

Now, she has made a second home in the bunker, complete with bunk beds made up with fleece blankets, a mini fridge and a folding table stocked with fresh fruit, bottled water and instant ramen.

"I'm here all the time. I don't want to go back up," she said.

Ousi has found purpose in staying behind, she said. She feeds the pets that have been left behind by neighbors who evacuated, and she brings food to soldiers stationed nearby. "If they let me, I would go to the border too. Let me defend my country," she said.

Sisilya el-Ousi takes her dogs out of her apartment building in Kiryat Shmona. Some residents, like Ousi, have chosen to remain.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Sisilya al-Ousi takes her dogs out of her apartment building in Kiryat Shmona. Some residents, like Ousi, have chosen to remain.

Her sentiment is shared by few of her neighbors. One of them, Oz Vaknin, 22, had returned briefly to pick up a few things from his apartment, he said. He has evacuated to a suburb of Tel Aviv.

Asked what it would take to feel safe living in Kiryat Shmona, he replied, "If the war with Nasrallah and Hezbollah is over, then maybe." But such a war has barely even begun, he said.

His lease is up in two months, Vaknin said. Afterward, he plans to move away.

Additional reporting by NPR's Lauren Frayer and Alon Avital. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
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