Away from Gaza, homes in south Lebanon bear the scars of Israel's other front line
KFAR KELA, Lebanon — Since the war in Gaza began, this quiet farming village along the Israeli border has found itself on the front lines of a parallel conflict — the patios of gracious stone homes now a dangerous front-row seat to the attacks between Israel and Hezbollah.
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, occupying the south of the country for 18 years. Fighting flared again into war in 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia. Since then, despite sporadic attacks, this region of southern Lebanon, with its rich soil and olive groves, has been stable enough that many villagers built sprawling homes on land they have farmed for generations.
One of them is Ibrahim Hamoud, 72, who sat on a plastic chair on a patio covered with broken glass two weeks ago, on what turned out to be the last day of a weeklong truce between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. The temporary cease-fire was accompanied by a halt in almost all attacks across the Lebanese border, just a few hundred yards from his home.
He had worked in construction in Africa for five years, away from his family, he said, to save money to build his dream house here. It was hit by Israeli shelling just before midnight ahead of the cease-fire that began on Nov. 24. He was asleep upstairs when the metal tore through the first floor.
"Well it's up to God, what can I tell you?" he said, explaining his belief that it is predetermined when he dies.
At the main entrance to Hamoud's home, part of the elegant black double doors flanked by white stone pillars has been shattered by the blast and lies in pieces in the yard. Inside, part of the ceiling has caved in and plaster and broken glass cover the red velvet sofa cushions. The kitchen and bedrooms downstairs are filled with rubble.
Hamoud's wife, Widad Ghareeb, looks pensively at the smashed shelves of a wooden sideboard used to store special linens and china.
"Now I know you should never save things for special occasions," she said. "You should use everything all the time."
Ghareeb was staying with a daughter in another village when her home was hit. She said she goes back there every night not just because she is afraid, but with only her husband for company, she is lonely.
"I'd rather they call me a coward a thousand times than say once, 'God rest her soul,'" said Ghareeb, who has four children and 13 grandchildren. "Now it's become like a ghost town around me here. There are no neighbors around anymore. I just want someone to keep me company."
When the attacks between Hezbollah and Israelbegan on Oct. 8, most of the family decamped to the home of the daughter Ghareeb is staying with in the village of Nabatieh. But it was so crowded that most found other places to stay and, like many of the thousands of families who fled the border region, they are scattered throughout Lebanon.
Hezbollah, a Shia Muslim movement, says 92 of its fighters have been killed in the cross-border attacks, while Agence France-Presse also counts the killings of at least 17 civilians, including three journalists. Israeli news reports say at least 10 Israelis, including soldiers, have been killed by Hezbollah strikes.
Many Lebanese villagers live in sight of Israeli towns on what older people still remember as Palestinian land. One of the casualties of the war, along with the dead and wounded, has been the belief by Lebanese families that despite the chaos of their country, they could build lives here.
Next door to Hamoud's house, Ali Suleiman, a 22-year-old university student, took advantage of the temporary cease-fire to start repairing his grandparents' apartment building. The two-story building housing their extended family was built over many years by money his grandparents made in Kuwait. Now, it is so heavily damaged, he and a friend were taking sledgehammers to knock down a wall that is no longer stable.
Suleiman said his grandparents had left for Beirut a few days before the first airstrike hit their building on Oct. 22 — creating a tank-round-sized hole in one wall. Fire raced through the apartments, scorching the walls and melting blades of metal ceiling fans.
In the kitchen, jars of homemade hot pepper sauce and thickened yogurt balls in olive oil now covered in plaster sit next to a sink filled with glass shards. Cheery red pot holders hang from the twisted door of the oven. A set of turquoise prayer beads lies on the floor in the rubble.
Suleiman's loyalties are as clear as the tattoos of Shia poems along his arms.
"Even if the house is destroyed, that's better than a single Hezbollah fighter being hurt by a thorn," he said. "If Hezbollah were not here, what happened to us would be worse than what happened in Gaza. But Israel could not do anything because we have Hezbollah."
The United States designates all of Hezbollah a terrorist organization, while the European Union considers its military but not political wing as such. In Lebanon though, Hezbollah is the most powerful security force and the most prominent political player in the country. Although Hezbollah is not universally supported throughout Lebanon, the Shia Muslim movement has particularly strong support in the south.
The view from Suleiman's roof is a snapshot of decades of Middle East history. Just a few hundred yards away are blue posts that mark the United Nations-delineated "blue line"drawn up in 2000 to determine whether Israel had completely withdrawn from Lebanon after its 18-year-long occupation.
Just behind that is the 30-foot concrete wall that Israel began building in 2012as a barrier between the two countries.
The wall stretches for miles along the border, at times running parallel to a road where on this day a Lebanese family with two young girls stepped out of their car to take photos next to hand-painted murals commemorating Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque along with figures who are heroes to Palestinians and Lebanese.
Israeli surveillance drones buzzed overhead as they have every day since the war in Gaza began.
The spokesman for U.N. peacekeepers along the border said while the attacks between Israel and Hezbollah have become more targeted and precise, with explosive drones and more sophisticated rockets, the conflict along the border is still contained to the border areas.
"It's still very much localized," said Andrea Tenenti, spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon, created to monitor Israel's withdrawal from the country in 1978.
While Israel ordered civilians to evacuate a wide area near its border after the war in Gaza started, Lebanese villagers were largely left to decide whether to seek safety elsewhere.
Which is why Hamoud stayed put even as his dream house was attacked.
"She leaves and I stay at home," he said, referring to Ghareeb, who was packing clothes to take to her daughter's house for the night. She said she prayed the cease-fire they were enjoying would become permanent.
Tomorrow, God willing, "things will improve and there will be a cease-fire and we can come back and not leave," she said. "Really we don't know what to do, where to settle ... we are lost."
She climbed into a car crowded with five other women, leaving behind her husband and a friend sitting on the plastic chairs as two cats picked their way delicately around the shards of glass.
Hamoud said he takes precautions, staying in a corner of the safest room when airstrikes start, but with no shelters there's little else he can do.
Hamoud's friend, who asked to be called Abu Walid, the name his friends know him by, said he had so far slept in his home in Houla, a border town that has been even harder hit by Israeli strikes than Kafr Kela.
"These past 45, 46 days I have stayed there," he said. "Of course you get calls from your children, your buddies, your brothers saying, 'Get out of there. What are you waiting for?'"
He and Hamoud agreed that everyone who has gone to stay with relatives had suffered the indignity of asking for help.
"Your brother or father or neighbor or someone close to you can bear you as a guest one or two or three days," said Abu Walid. "Then it's better to stay in your home to preserve your dignity and your relationships with people."
Abu Walid said he did not want his full name used because he didn't trust people he didn't know, particularly journalists.
His town, Houla, is known to almost every Lebanese school child as the site of one of the deadliest massacres in the 1948 warthat created Israel. Dozens of men who had surrendered were shot dead by Israeli forces in a house that was blown up on top of them. The army company commanderwas found guiltyin an Israel court of shooting 15 of them. He ended up serving one year in prison.
"It is an unhealable wound," Abu Walid said of the massacre. "There is not a family in Houla who did not lose someone," he said, noting that the descendants of the dead men would have made up their own village by now had they lived.
The next day, Dec. 1, the cease-fire was broken. Abu Walid, reached by phone, said his aunt and son were killed in their home, buried in rubble when an Israeli airstrike hit their house in Houla. Hezbollah claimed the young man as one of its fighters.
The day after that, Hamoud said another airstrike had hit his house. A video he sent showed it almost completely demolished.
Hamoud said he had finally decided to stay somewhere safer at night but sneaks back quickly in the day to feed his goats.
He said he planned to try to repair his house, he hoped with the help of Hezbollah, which in 2006 compensated villagers for damage to their homes caused by fighting.
"Of course we will rebuild," he said. "It is our land. Nobody can take our land."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.