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Clashes in South Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah have intensified and any miscalculation holds the potential to trigger a larger regional war.
Though Batoul Rihan has adjusted to life in Nmairiyeh village, south Lebanon, after fleeing her home in Aynata near the border with occupied Palestine, the intense clashes between Hezbollah and Israel weigh heavily on the 31-year-old and her parents, with their home in the south persistently on their minds.
“It’s hard starting over where you don’t know anyone and have no idea when you’ll be returning,” Batoul told Fanack.
Reluctant to leave Aynata initially, an Israeli airstrike on November 13 targeting their village center forced them to leave. They moved to a relative’s unoccupied property in Nmairiyeh, away from the bombardment. However, this move meant that her father had to leave his carpentry workshop – their sole source of income – behind.
“We convinced him not to return to Aynata and thankfully, extended family have been helping us manage financially,” she said.
As of January 2, 76,018 individuals have been displaced within Lebanon due to ongoing Israeli hostilities; the majority of the displaced are from the south. This displacement poses financial, social, and health challenges from unemployment to harsh winter conditions to educational disruptions.
“We’re thankful to still be alive but this is definitely more challenging than people would think,” Batoul said.
The southern front
Over the past three months, back-and-forth clashes between Israel and Hezbollah have intensified. Any small miscalculation now holds the potential to trigger a larger regional war that might place Lebanon asymmetrically at the forefront.
The escalating insecurity in bordering towns, forced thousands of people to seek refuge in safer areas like the coastal southern city of Tyre. Over 1,000 individuals have sought shelter in three schools, while more than 5,000 reside in private apartments across the city, potentially with more unregistered individuals.
More than 1,200 displaced individuals have taken shelter in the Tyre Technical Institute’s campus, which also houses the Faculty of Science of the Lebanese University.
Officials have highlighted challenges in accessing sanitation and medication, leading to a scabies outbreak in shelters. They caution against the potential spread of diseases given the current conditions.
Some people were able to move in with relatives or other houses they owned in Beirut.
Like Batoul, Lama*, 26, originally from Mays al-Jabal near the border, relocated to Nmairiyeh. She and her husband and one-year-old all live in a tiny bedroom inside a larger apartment shared by two extended families. With only a thin mattress on the floor, the young family struggles.
“It’s extremely tough,” Lama told Fanack. “Leaving one’s home means losing one’s routine, and facing financial, emotional, and physical losses.”
Her extended family lost crops owing to persistent Israeli hostility, which hampered their capacity to cultivate the land. Lama’s husband, a carpenter, is currently looking for work.
“We were given $100 as charity and the municipality brought us a gas canister but it is not enough,” she said. “Our inability to sufficiently heat our space caused my son to fall ill. Many other children are also ill due to the lack of proper heating.”
Adaptation remains a struggle for Lama’s family. They cling to hope of returning home, but each day of intensified clashes dims that hope.
“This war might last a long time, and we deeply miss our lives and yearn to go back,” she said.
Trying to remain positive
For 21-year-old online activist Sara Rammal, her Instagram page has shifted from art and fashion to daily updates about south Lebanon and Gaza. Her family moved from the village of Odaisseh to her Beirut studio.
“Adapting to this new situation is challenging, but we try to find the silver linings,” Sara told Fanack. “This is heaven compared to Gaza.”
While their finances hold up, educational disruptions have become a norm. Sara’s cousin, usually an A student, fell behind due to missed classes.
“There’s little understanding regarding missed classes,” she said. “My cousin was forced to drop her courses because she couldn’t attend all classes on campus.”
In the South, Sara would spend time creating art, filming short videos, and sewing dresses. Although she enjoys staying in Beirut, she says that the south provides a sense of home that is irreplaceable.
“We can’t predict when this war will end, but we know we will rebuild everything even if our houses are destroyed,” she said.
Currently, she balances studies and online activism, shedding light on the overlooked clashes in the south.
“It is crucial that people know Gaza isn’t alone; it might offer hope,” she said.
Batoul, Lama, and Sara share one wish for the New Year: for the onslaught against Gaza to end so they can return home. Despite their varied challenges and ways of adapting, they unanimously agreed that once the war ends, they’ll immediately head back. Nevertheless, they remain wary of potential escalations and the possibility of being displaced again.
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, stated on January 5 that tensions could ease if Israel stops its attacks on Gaza. This statement follows the recent drone strike that targeted Saleh Arouri, Hamas’ deputy political head, in Beirut on January 2. While Hezbollah signaled a willingness to negotiate, it did not pledge that it would not engage in a wider war.
According to Lebanese journalist and analyst Ali al-Amin, Hezbollah appears to prefer avoiding a full-blown war compared to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appears to be desiring it.
“To me, it seems obvious that the US does not want a full-blown war, and Iran and Hezbollah are benefiting from this stance,” he told Fanack, adding that an Israeli ground invasion is only possible if an open war breaks out.
The analyst predicts that Israel will continue to escalate its attacks against south Lebanon. His assessment of the damage is that it might be easier to rebuild than the war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, since Israel has mainly targeted Hezbollah fighters rather than carrying out random attacks as it is doing in Gaza.
However, he pointed out that in 2006, there were more extensive initiatives aiding the situation of the displaced compared to today.
“Back then, there were more initiatives, both from governmental and non-governmental sources that were always on standby to provide relief and aid,” he explained.
Activist Mariam Bilal highlighted how aid initiatives have decreased as the war in south Lebanon prolonged. Despite this, the desperate pleas of the people persist.
“As winter approaches, many displaced, mostly farmers, face severe hardships,” Mariam told Fanack. “Their livelihoods are devastated with no prospects of returning soon.”
She noted significant challenges among the displaced, such as the scarcity of essentials like diapers for infants, sanitary products for women, and obstacles preventing students from attending online classes.
“The Ministry of Education should at least provide tablets for students to access their online classes,” she said.
As conditions worsen, Mariam observed that some displaced individuals are choosing to return home despite the ongoing aggression.
“Getting help isn’t straightforward; it often depends on connections,” she said. “Many find this unbearable and opt to return to their homes despite the dangers.”
The situation in south Lebanon is largely connected to the events unfolding in Gaza. This means that residents of south Lebanon are likely to suffer greater losses and pain if a ceasefire in Gaza is not quickly established.