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Israel-Hamas war sparks south Lebanon exodus, as people flee border areas

Beirut, Lebanon – Kindergarten teacher Anna’s school in the southern Lebanon village of Barich is closed for a week, but the mother of two sons isn’t celebrating the unexpected days off from work.

Instead, she has brought her children to the capital Beirut, where she has rented an Airbnb. They are not on holiday. They are escaping Israeli missiles.

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As Israel’s war on Gaza intensifies after the audacious Hamas attack on Saturday, the conflict is increasingly threatening to spiral across national borders. Even though the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah has not yet formally joined the conflict, the consequences of raised tensions with Israel are being felt by communities along the border between the two nations.

Since Sunday, thousands of residents of southern Lebanese villages near the border with Israel have been fleeing their homes, afraid of a potential war breaking out between Israel and Hezbollah.

“Our lives have stopped,” Marie, a 28-year-old wedding planner from a village near Bint Jbeil, told Al Jazeera by phone. “We don’t know when they’ll go back to normal. We are wondering, ‘What’s next?’”

More than 1,400 people in the Gaza Strip have been killed in Israeli strikes that followed the Hamas attack in southern Israel, in which at least 1,300 people died. The prospect of Hezbollah joining the war on the side of Hamas has sparked concerns of a wider regional conflagration.

On Wednesday, Hezbollah hit an Israeli military position with an anti-tank missile. Israel responded by hitting a Hezbollah outpost, as rumours spread that the group’s drones had infiltrated Israeli territory. At least three civilians were injured by Israeli strikes in south Lebanon while at least three Hezbollah members were killed from Israeli shelling earlier in the week.

Lebanon, a country of six million people, shares an 81-kilometre (50-mile) southern border with Israel. About 600,000 people – or a tenth of the country’s population – live near that border. The two countries have technically been at war since Israel’s creation in 1948, but a relative calm has prevailed since the last time both sides met in battle, in 2006 – though there have been occasional flare-ups.

Locals fear that if hostilities escalate, a war today would be more disastrous than in 2006. In that conflict, 1,109 Lebanese – mostly civilians – were killed while Israel lost 43 civilians and 12 soldiers. Hezbollah’s firepower and experience have grown since then, particularly after 2012, when it deployed fighters to aid its embattled ally, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

This round of fighting could be even more intense. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah claims his group boasts 100,000 fighters, while Israeli officials have threatened to return Lebanon to the Stone Age should a war break out.

Memories of the 2006 war still linger in the minds of many residents, so an exodus from the south’s towns and villages is under way to the capital Beirut and its surrounding suburbs.

“I saw what happened in 2006, and I didn’t want to stay,” said Anna, the teacher. “I came for the safety of my kids, just in case anything happens.” As of now, her school is expected to reopen next week and she plans to return to work.

Heading north

At the moment though, the movement of people is in one direction: away from the border with Israel.

“All the houses are empty,” Marie, whose parents left their hometown near the southern border city of Bint Jbeil on Monday to join her in Beirut, told Al Jazeera.  “It’s not a small movement [of people].”

More than half the 10,000 residents in Rmeish, another border town, have fled to Beirut or the Metn region, just north of Beirut, according to the town’s mayor, Milad El Alam. The town doesn’t have enough medicine, nor a nearby hospital, to deal with a prospective humanitarian crisis should a war break out.

But there’s another factor that makes many people in Lebanon feel more vulnerable than before.

“Today’s situation is completely different from 2006,” El Alam said. “Back then, we had money.”

Since 2019, Lebanon has witnessed large anti-government protests over economic woes and the biggest non-nuclear explosion in history. The country’s currency has lost over 90 percent of its value in one of the world’s worst financial crises since the mid-19th century according to the World Bank. Lebanon’s once prosperous middle class has been devastated with 80 percent of the population now living below the poverty line and 36 percent in severe poverty.

Historic disenfranchisement

The areas on Lebanon’s periphery have a long history of disenfranchisement and neglect from the state.

Today, poverty levels in south Lebanon are higher than the national average, while salaries are lower, the private sector is in decline, and many locals rely heavily on remittances from relatives abroad. Analysts say a potential conflict would add further stress to an already fraught region.

“A war would have detrimental consequences on the region’s economy,” Hussein Cheaito, an economist with the Arab Watch Coalition, told Al Jazeera. “Education and healthcare are already out of reach for so many people due to privatisation. This will make things even more difficult for so many people in the region with economic insecurity across the board.”

Meanwhile, even as residents panic, the Lebanese government has stayed silent.

El Alam, the mayor, told Al Jazeera he’s only had brief exchanges with the local United Nations peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, but no communication with the government, security forces or any political parties about how to respond to a potential conflict.

Staying put

But while the threat of war looms, not everyone is leaving their homes. Some remain to work while others simply have no family or friends to host them. Others have decided not to leave out of defiance, a sense of relative safety because they are not right next to the border, or a mixture of both.

“We’re not leaving our houses or our land,” Mohammad Farhat, 71, told Al Jazeera by phone from his village of Arab Salim, around 25km (15 miles) from the border with Israel. “We lived through wars in the past, [so] we’re not scared this time.”

Oussama Haddad, 58, works in imports and exports and lives in a town called Ebel Saqi, about a half hour from the southern border. He’d rather stay in the 135-year-old house his great-grandfather hand-built, he said. Despite the uncertainty, Haddad struggled to imagine how the situation could deteriorate even further.

“You’re in Lebanon, right? Are we not in the stone age already?” he said, referencing the Israeli official’s threats to Hezbollah and the country’s economic crisis.

Having fled his town, Rmeish’s mayor El Alam is worried about what comes next. But like many in Lebanon, he feels powerless.

“We don’t get to decide [if there is war or not],” he said. “If we did, there would be peace in all of Lebanon.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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