A shell from Israeli artillery explodes over Aita Al Shaab a Lebanese border village with Israel, south Lebanon. Image Credit: AP

SHTULA, Israel: One hundred fifteen miles from Gaza, Israel was racing to harden its border with Lebanon on Wednesday, preparing for a potential second front in its war against Islamist militants.

In Shtula and other small towns in this hilly region, fears are rising that Hezbollah will join the fight.

Officials were positioning military forces up and down the border and clearing the few remaining civilians from 28 communities within a buffer zone that extends just over a mile from the Lebanese line.

Tanks and armoured personnel carriers were positioned throughout the area, traversing the nearly deserted roads. Military checkpoints sealed off the area. Units had established encampments under tree cover.

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Forces on both sides have exchanged fire multiple times in the days since Hamas infiltrators launched their surprise October 7 attack on Israel, killing at least 1,400 people.

Hezbollah says eight of its fighters in the border region have been killed in Israeli strikes since Tuesday. An elderly couple was killed in a rural Lebanese town. An Israeli shell is believed to have killed a Reuters videographer covering the fighting there last week. The Israel Defence Forces said it was investigating the incident, which injured six other journalists.

The IDF says at least five Israelis have been killed, including three soldiers in a shootout with a Hezbollah gunman who infiltrated the area. The lone civilian fatality, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was hit Sunday while working at a construction site in this hilltop town just yards from the border fence.

A shattered truck near where the man had been standing remained there Wednesday, a pair of work boots discarded where one of the three injured was treated on the road.

“In a single second, everything changed,” said Liav Benshushan, a reservist member of Shtula’s small security force and one of the only civilians left in the town of 300. A plume of smoke rose from a nearby ridge, not far from where gunfire erupted Tuesday in the Israeli town of Zarit.

Benshushan owned the house the man was helping to build. “He was my friend.”

World trying to contain risk of wider war

The international community is straining to contain the risk of a wider battle between Israel and Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that is Lebanon’s most dominant political and military force. The United States dispatched warships to the region last week, hoping the show of force would deter the group - and its Iranian allies - from launching a full-scale attack.

But a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, amid punishing Israeli airstrikes, is stoking anger in Lebanon and across the Arab world and could push Hezbollah to escalate.

That anger surged after a deadly strike at a hospital in Gaza late Monday, a blast the IDF and Palestinian militants blamed on each other. The American intelligence assessment was that Israel was “not responsible” for the blast. But that has done nothing to contain the outrage in Lebanon, where mistrust of the United States runs deep. Soldiers clashed with protesters for a second day in Beirut on Wednesday.

Israeli soldiers walk on a road near the Israel border with Lebanon amid heightened tensions between Israel and Lebanon. Image Credit: Reuters

“Everyone must stand up and say that the project to expel the people of Gaza will not pass,” Hashem Safi Al Deen, head of Hezbollah’s executive council, said Wednesday.

Israel said Monday it had deployed reserve and regular forces to the northern border, even as it amasses forces around Gaza for an expected ground invasion.

“The IDF is fighting the Hamas terrorist organisation who opened this war, and is ready for every scenario in the north and south alike,” the IDF said in a statement to The Washington Post.

“We advise our enemies not to test our capability to defend ourselves.”

Civilians on both sides of the border, where neighbourhoods are close enough for Israelis and Lebanese to see and hear one another, were bracing for the possibility that their home will again become a war zone - as it was in 2006 during a 34-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

More than 1,000 people were killed in Lebanon and more than 150 in Israel.

‘We are staying’

Ahmad Deeb, the mayor of the Lebanese border village of Wazzani, said Israeli shells had already landed on his town’s outskirts. But most of the town’s residents are poor, and few were thinking of leaving.

“Where do you want us to evacuate to?” he asked. “No, no, no. God willing, we are staying.”

A woman and a girl hold pet carriers and other belongings as they prepare to depart from Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon on October 19, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

In Israel, thousands of civilians who have evacuated were monitoring events from hotels and the homes of friends. Some left the area when the missiles began to fall last week. The rest moved south when the military ordered a mandatory evacuation Monday.

Guy Becker, 52, said the majority of people in his border kibbutz of Baram had relocated to a single hotel in Tiberias, 19 miles to the south. He and his wife and two daughters tried several locations before deciding it was more comfortable to ride it out with their 400 fellow residents, he said.

The October 7 attacks created particular fear in small northern towns such as theirs, Becker said, so similar in so many ways to the communities overrun by Hamas gunmen.

“Hezbollah forces cutting through the fences and storming the settlements in the north is exactly the scenario we’ve been fearing and preparing for years,” he said.

Like the southern kibbutzim and towns that have become bywords for atrocities - Reim, Beeri, Kfar Azza - most of the northern border towns rely on a small armed security force of reservists and civilians as a first line of defense. Members of the volunteer force in Shtula have remained behind in their deserted town - they declined to say how many - but they have no illusions about how they would fare in a similar attack.

Eliyahu Galil, a local journalist, set his M16 and a flak jacket heavy with ammunition on the floor of one of the few occupied houses in the town. Just down the street, thousands of chickens clucked in an untended poultry shed. Nearby was a wall damaged by a missile early Tuesday.

A Hezbollah tunnel was discovered and destroyed less than 600 yards from Shtula in 2019. There are almost certainly others, Galil said. Hezbollah said its snipers were targeting military surveillance cameras in the area.

“If something like what happened in the south happens here, we will fight but we will be killed,” he said.

Already shocked that Hezbollah was firing antitank missiles into the town, he and his fellow security team members are counting on the Israeli military to take on the brunt of a fight. But they would stay to help, he said.

“We can’t leave,” said Ofer Maman, 48, a mushroom farmer. “We are part of the army now.”