Hezbollah launches big attack on Israel, sonic booms rattle Beirut

The fires have become the most visible sign of the heating up of the conflict on the Lebanese-Israeli border

CHEBAA, Lebanon: With Gaza cease-fire talks faltering and no clear framework for the conflict on the Lebanon-Israel border, daily exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and Israeli forces have sparked fires that are tearing through forests and farmland on both sides of the front line. .
The fires — fueled by supply shortages and security concerns — have consumed thousands of hectares of land in southern Lebanon and northern Israel, becoming one of the most visible signs of the escalating conflict.
A full-scale war — one that would have catastrophic consequences for people on both sides of the border — is an increasingly real possibility. Some fear that the fires caused by the larger conflict would also cause irreversible damage to the land.
charred remains in Lebanon
In Israel, images of fires caused by Hezbollah rockets sparked a public outcry and prompted Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to declare last month that “it’s time for all of Lebanon to burn.”
Most of it was burning.
The fires in Lebanon started in late April – earlier than the usual fire season – and have engulfed mostly rural areas along the border.
The Sunni town of Cheba, tucked into the mountains on Lebanon’s southeastern edge, has little Hezbollah presence, and the town has not been targeted as often as other border villages. But the sounds of shelling still reverberate regularly, and in the mountains above, the once-fringed oak ridges are charred and bare.
In a cherry orchard on the outskirts of the city, bunches of fruit hang among the browned leaves after a fire broke out caused by an Israeli strike. Firefighters and local men — some using their shirts to put out the flames — prevented the fire from reaching homes and a nearby UN peacekeeping center.
“The grass will come back next year, but the trees are gone,” said Musa Saab, whose family owns the orchard. “We’ll have to get seedlings and plant them, and you need five or seven years before you start harvesting.”
Saab refuses to leave with his wife and 8-year-old daughter. They can’t afford to live elsewhere and fear they won’t be able to return, as happened to his parents when they left the disputed area of ​​Chebaa Farms — captured by Israel from Syria in 1967 and claimed by Lebanon.
Burn scars in Israel
The slopes of Mount Meron, the second highest mountain in Israel and home to an air base, have long been covered with native oaks, a dense grove that has provided refuge for wild boars, gazelles and rare species of flora and fauna.
Now the green slopes are punctuated by three new burn scars — the largest several hundred square meters — the remains of an explosive Hezbollah drone shot down a few weeks ago. Park rangers worry that the devastation has only just begun.
“The damage this year is ten times greater than this year,” said Shai Koren, of the northern district for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Looking out over the slopes of Meron, Koren said he doesn’t expect the forest to survive the summer: “You can take pictures before and after.”
Numbers and weapons
Since the start of the war, the Israeli military has tracked 5,450 launches toward northern Israel. According to Israel’s Alma Research and Education Center, most early launches were short-range anti-tank missiles, but Hezbollah’s use of drones has increased.
In Lebanon, officials and rights groups accuse Israel of firing white phosphorus incendiary shells at residential areas, in addition to regular artillery shelling and airstrikes.
The Israeli military says it uses white phosphorus only as a smokescreen, not to target populated areas. But even in open areas, shells can cause a fire that spreads quickly.
The border clashes began on October 8, a day after a Hamas incursion into southern Israel that killed around 1,200 people and sparked a war in Gaza. More than 37,000 were killed there, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.
Hezbollah has begun launching rockets into northern Israel to open what it calls a “front of support” for Hamas, to pull Israeli forces out of Gaza.
Israel responded, and attacks spread throughout the border region. In the north of Israel, 16 soldiers and 11 civilians were killed. More than 450 people were killed in Lebanon — mostly fighters, but also over 80 civilians and non-combatants.
The exchange has intensified since early May, when Israel began an incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah. That coincided with the start of a hot, dry fire season.
Since May, Hezbollah strikes have burned 8,700 hectares (about 21,500 acres) in northern Israel, according to Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority.
Eli Mor, of the Israel Fire and Rescue Service, said drones, which are much more accurate than rockets, often “arrive one after the other, the first with a camera and the second will shoot.”
“Every launch is a real threat,” Mor added.
In southern Lebanon, about 4,000 hectares have burned due to Israeli strikes, said George Mitri of the Land and Natural Resources Program at Balamand University. In the previous two years, he said, Lebanon’s total area burned annually was 500 to 600 hectares (1,200 to 1,500 acres).
Answer to fire
Safety issues make it difficult to respond in the first crucial hours of a fire. Firefighting planes are mostly grounded for fear of being shot down. In the field, firefighters often cannot move without military escort.
“If we lose half an hour or an hour, it could take us an extra day or two to bring the fire under control,” said Mohammad Saadeh, head of the Chebaa civil defense station. The station responded to 27 fires in three weeks last month – almost as many as a normal year.
On the other side of the border, Moran Arinovski used to be a cook, and now he is the deputy commander of the ambulance in Kibbutz Manara. With 10 others, he has battled more than 20 fires in the past two months.
Mor, of the Israel Fire and Rescue Service, said firefighters often have to perform triage.
“Sometimes we have to give up open areas that don’t endanger people or cities,” Mor said.
The border areas are mostly depopulated. The Israeli government evacuated the 4-kilometer strip early in the war, leaving only soldiers and emergency personnel. There is no official evacuation order in Lebanon, but large parts have become virtually uninhabitable.
About 95,000 people in Lebanon and 60,000 people in Israel were displaced for nine months.
Kibbutz Sde Nehemiah did not evacuate, and Efrat Eldan Shechter said for several days he watched helplessly as the smoke approached the house.
“There’s a psychological impact, knowing and feeling like we’re alone,” she said, because firefighters can’t access certain areas.
Israeli cowboys, who graze cattle in the Golan Heights, often team up to fight fires when firefighters cannot arrive quickly.
Schechter noted that news footage of the flames tearing across the hillsides focused more attention on the conflict in her backyard, rather than just the war in Gaza. “It wasn’t until the fires started that we made headlines in Israel,” she said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that as fighting in Gaza winds down, Israel will send more troops to its northern border. This could open a new front and increase the risk of more devastating fires.
Koren says natural fires are a normal part of a forest’s life cycle and can promote ecological diversity, but not conflict fires. “The moment fires happen over and over again, that’s what creates the damage,” he said.

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