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A view from both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border


While fighting continues in Gaza to Israel's south, Hezbollah fired more than 215 rockets into northern Israel today, according to the Israeli military. Hezbollah said this is partly in retaliation for the Israeli killing of one of its senior commanders in an Israeli airstrike late Tuesday night. And this was just the latest escalation in fighting between Hezbollah and Israel since the war in Gaza began in October. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf was in northern Israel, and NPR's Jane Arraf in southern Lebanon, along the border, earlier this week, and they're both on the line with us now. Kat, Jane, good to have you here.


JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How much of an escalation is this, Jane?

ARRAF: Well, since Hezbollah began attacking Israel last October in support of Hamas and Gaza, attacks have been confined mostly to a specific area along the border and to military targets. The intensity of attacks has increased, and some, lately, have gone further into Israel. Israeli attacks have also hit further in Lebanon, but still, so far, focused on military targets.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

ARRAF: This was the burial today of the commander known as Abu Taleb in his Lebanese hometown. He was killed, along with at least three other fighters, in a strike Tuesday on what Israel said was a command and control center in south Lebanon. At a funeral procession earlier in Beirut's southern suburbs, Hezbollah official Hachem Safieddine threatened vengeance.


HASHEM SAFIEDDINE: (Through interpreter) Our answer, after the martyrdom of Abu Taleb, is we're going to intensify our operations in strength and severity, in quantity and quality. Let Israel await us in the field.

ARRAF: Abu Taleb was said to have been the most senior field commander killed in Lebanon since the Gaza war began.

SHAPIRO: So I'm picturing you, Jane and Kat, on opposite sides of this border, with rockets flying back and forth. Kat, what did it look like from Israel, where you stood?

LONSDORF: Well, I mean, today, I'm in Tel Aviv. So I was far away from that barrage of rockets this morning, thankfully. But I will tell you - a lot of people here have this app on their phone that alerts whenever there's a siren or incoming fire. At around 9 a.m. today, my phone just started going wild - you know, alert after alert. I had 30 notifications in two minutes. So that was the first sign that something was up this morning.

You know, this was one of the largest attacks by Hezbollah that we have seen since the Gaza war began. But this kind of exchange happens pretty much daily up near the border. I was there yesterday and the day before, and there were explosions frequently, oftentimes without any siren or warning.

You know, like Jane said, Hezbollah says they're largely aiming for military targets, but Israel also responds by intercepting what Hezbollah shoots at them, and there are a lot of towns caught in that crossfire.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about what you saw when you were in those towns up near the border.

LONSDORF: Yeah. So the towns closest to the border are pretty much ghost towns right now. You know, tens of thousands of Israelis have evacuated, staying in hotels. They're with family elsewhere. Even though Israel does intercept about 90% of the rockets or drones sent over by Hezbollah, some of them do hit, and there's a good amount of damage. I was in one town called Kiryat Shmona, and we saw a lot of apartment buildings and businesses that were destroyed or had big holes in them from rockets.

In the morning, when we got there on Monday, we parked. And almost immediately when we got out of the car, there was this huge explosion, and the hill right in front of us started smoking from a direct hit. So the fighting is very, very real for people who are living up there, and everyone I talked to told me that it has gotten significantly worse in the past few weeks.

SHAPIRO: And, Jane, when you were on the Lebanese side of the border, on patrol with U.N. peacekeepers who've been deployed on that frontier for decades, what did you see?

ARRAF: Well, we were in an armored vehicle, as you can hear. This was UNIFIL, and we were with an Italian contingent of U.N. peacekeepers on patrol along the blue line - the cease-fire line for the past 24 years between the two countries. That's since Israel's 1978 invasion and its later withdrawal from Lebanon. Hezbollah, in fact, was created in 1982 to counter a second Israeli invasion.

Almost every village we passed, Ari, had extensive damage. Houses collapsed into rubble from air strikes. The five hours we were out, we saw only one civilian, and he was driving the only car on the roads. When we got to a base just a few hundred feet from Israel, we climbed up the rails to an observation tower, where one of the peacekeepers was looking through binoculars. But even without those, you could easily see the Israeli city of Nahariya. And that's where you were, right, Kat?

LONSDORF: Yeah. And we had a direct, you know, hit when we were there, too.

ARRAF: Wow. We could hear occasional thuds of artillery and certainly the roar of fighter jets. Those prompted security alerts, so we retreated to a base.


ARRAF: That was an announcement that the threat level had decreased, and people could move around. The company commander said the deployment in Lebanon was like a roller coaster for them.

SHAPIRO: Of course, Israel is already fighting the war in Gaza against the Palestinian group Hamas. Kat, is the Israeli military ready for a second front in the north?

LONSDORF: Well, you know, officials here in Israel will certainly tell you that they're ready. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the north last week, and he said that Israel is, quote, "prepared for a very intensive operation in the north." The Israeli military just completed military exercises to prepare, and the government upped the number of reservists who they can call on specifically for this war in the north.

You know, in terms of the public, everyone - every single person I talked to in the north - told me that they think a war is inevitable, that it's the only option to deal with the tension on the border and not diplomacy. I met with the mayor of Kiryat Shmona - that mostly evacuated town I was telling you about. His name is Avichai Stern. I met with him in a bunker under city hall because there were so many sirens going off at the time. The residents of his town are spread out all across, you know, 460 locations in Israel, and they want to come home. And so I asked him what it would take for them to feel safe to come back.

AVICHAI STERN: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: He told me that, in order for people to come back, Israel needs to, quote, "eliminate the threat in the north."

He said he doesn't want a war, but the question for him now isn't if the war happens, it's when.

SHAPIRO: And what would that look like? I mean, a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon would be very different from the war against Hamas in Gaza.

LONSDORF: Yeah, exactly. Hezbollah has much more sophisticated missiles and weapons, like drones, than Hamas does. And they can reach much further, and they're much more powerful. So for Israelis, the experience of a war with Hezbollah would likely be, much, much different than what's happening now, which is very much centered in Gaza.

ARRAF: And this isn't the same Hezbollah, either, that Israel has gone to war with before. It's much better armed, thanks to support from Iran. But still, Ari, there's the feeling that neither Israel nor Hezbollah really want all-out war. Lebanon, for instance, is already a fragile state. It has a political, economic and security crisis. And everyone seems quite aware that all-out war could lead to actual collapse.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Jane Arraf in Amman and NPR's Kat Lonsdorf in Tel Aviv. Thank you both.

ARRAF: Thank you.

LONSDORF: Thanks, Ari. 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.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.