July 6, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

The lack of shelters continues to haunt northern Israel

A drive around Kiryat Shmona and northern Israel, amidst the quiet of the ghost town and the chirping birds, reveals a sense that much more must be done to bring necessary protections.
July 6, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

The lack of shelters continues to haunt northern Israel

A drive around Kiryat Shmona and northern Israel, amidst the quiet of the ghost town and the chirping birds, reveals a sense that much more must be done to bring necessary protections.

Overlooking Kiryat Shmona is a park with an observation tower, constructed decades ago, near fortifications that appear to date from the 1960s. In those days Kiryat Shmona would have been very close to the Syrian-occupied Golan Heights. Today those heights are controlled by Israel and the whole of the Hula Valley can be seen from the observation point.

Saturday was a clear day in the North. In the Hula Valley it is hot, too hot in the afternoon. However, from the observation point over Kiryat Shmona the wind is blowing. The wind comes up the valley from Lebanon. It is a north wind that comes down toward the valley and then sinks and stops as the land dips below sea-level toward the Sea of Galilee.

Kiryat Shmona has been evacuated since mid-October. It is a ghost town. It is entirely quiet on Shabbat, not a car can be heard. Only the chirping of the birds now make a racket here. On the observation point overlooking the city, the quiet is only part of the story. Earlier in the day sirens sounded throughout the morning warning of incoming attacks from Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has sought to target Israel often with drones and missiles, and the group continues to feel it can attack Israel with impunity.

In general, Hezbollah has linked its attacks on Israel with the Gaza war and claims a right to attack Israel every time there is escalation in Gaza. What this means is that Hamas now pulls the strings of Hezbollah. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Iran.

If there is a ceasefire in Gaza, or if the northern front with Hezbollah suddenly falls quiet and the Iranian-backed group stops attacking, then there will be questions about when Israelis may return to the North. Currently, between 50,000 and 80,000 people are evacuated from northern communities, with some 20,000 evacuated just from Kiryat Shmona.

Driving around this city and seeing the damage from rockets that have struck the area reveals the challenges ahead.

How does Kiryat Shmona compare to Sderot?

If people return to areas such as Kiryat Shmona they will need the shelters and protection that cities such as Sderot have in the South. Sderot was provided increased protection because of the rocket threat that Hamas began to roll out in the early 2000s.

The city is now festooned with painted armored bus shelters, and it is well equipped to handle rocket fire. However, the North has been neglected over the years in this respect. Even though it was widely known that Hezbollah was a much larger threat than Hamas, it appears much less thought went into how civilians would be protected in the North. This became apparent after October 7 when the decision was made to evacuate civilians.

Resources have been poured into providing some shelters in the North and improving defenses. However, nine months of war show how difficult this challenge is. At the end of the day it will be up to the local authorities and civilians to decide if they have enough shelters.

The contrast with communities such as Sderot is clear. Sderot is an example of a modern city that is prepared for incoming rockets and other threats. It was evacuated after October 7, but its residents have returned.

The Hezbollah threat is large and looming. A recent post by the IDF on social media said that Hezbollah has 200,000 rockets and 100,000 terrorist operatives. Hezbollah also has drones and other weapons. The group has shown throughout nine months of war that it can carry out wide-ranging and increasingly deep attacks into Israel. Hezbollah often brags about its targets and the group speaks about the types of weapons it uses. It hints at the obvious fact that it is keeping most of its powder dry and only revealing a part of its capabilities.

Israel’s decision to evacuate the northern communities continues to lack clarity. It may have made sense directly after October 7, but today it makes less sense. It sends a message that they need to be evacuated because of the Hezbollah threat and the lack of willingness to deter that threat. Never in Israel’s history did Israel evacuate whole cities for nine months.

This raises serious questions about what the long term plan is for the North and the Hezbollah threat. The need to secure and protect the communities with shelters and other means is clear. During nine months of war there was time to invest in this.

Though there have been some improvements, a drive around Kiryat Shmona, amidst the quiet of the ghost town and the chirping birds, reveals a sense that much more must be done. This is because anyone who is driving or walking around, feels the lack of a place to run to for shelter.

From personal experience as I drove and walked, I felt like asking myself every ten meters, where would I go if sirens sounded. I saw the empty playgrounds and imagined them full of children and asked, where will the children run to. The city has old municipal shelters from back in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the requirement to bring everything up to a Sderot-level of safety is clear.

Hezbollah has tied itself to Hamas, such that it will now escalate every time there are tensions in Gaza. This makes the northern front now more similar to the Gaza front. Both fronts may also be join by increased tension in the West Bank in the future.

This is Iran’s plan, to “unite” the arenas or fronts against Israel. It is now in place. The question is when will Israel invest in more shelters for the civilian population when the plan becomes operational.

The lack of shelters is felt not just in Kiryat Shmona. I drove to other nearby areas, and the problem is widespread. 

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Issues:

Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Israel Israel at War