Fires have become the most visible sign of the escalating conflict on the Lebanon-Israel border


CHEBAA, Lebanon (AP) — With ceasefire talks staggering in Gaza and there is no clear turn-off to the conflict on the Lebanon-Israel border, the daily exchange of attacks between Hezbollah and Israeli forces have set fires that have ravaged forests and farmland on both sides of the front line.

The fires, exacerbated by supply shortages and security concerns, have burned thousands of hectares of land in southern Lebanon and northern Israel and are one of the most visible signs of the escalating conflict.

There is an increasingly real possibility of a full-scale war – a war that catastrophic consequences for people on both sides of the border. Some fear that the fires caused by a larger conflict would also cause irreparable damage to the country.

Charred remains in Lebanon

In Israel, images of fires caused by Hezbollah rockets have sparked public outrage and led Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to declare last month that it is “time for all of Lebanon to burn.”

Much of it was already burning.

The fires in Lebanon started in late April, ahead of the usual fire season, and ripped through mostly rural areas along the border.

The Sunni town of Chebaa, tucked into the mountains on Lebanon’s southeastern edge, has little Hezbollah presence and has not been targeted as often as other border towns. But the sounds of shelling are still frequent, and in the mountains above, the once oak-lined ridges are charred and barren.

In a cherry orchard on the edge of town, bunches of fruit hang among brown leaves after a fire sparked by an Israeli strike ripped through it. Firefighters and local men — some using their shirts to douse the flames — prevented the blaze from reaching homes and the nearby UN peacekeeping station.

“Grass will come back next year, but the trees are gone,” said Moussa Saab, whose family owns the orchard. “We have to get seedlings and plant them, and you need five or seven years before you can start harvesting.”

Saab refuses to leave with his wife and 8-year-old daughter. They cannot afford to live anywhere else and fear they will not be able to return, as happened to his parents when they left the disputed Chebaa Farms area — captured from Syria by Israel in 1967 and claimed by Lebanon.

Burn scars in Israel

The slopes of Mount Meron, Israel’s second-highest mountain and home to an air base, were long covered with native oak trees. A dense forest provided shelter for wild boars, gazelles, and rare species of flowers and animals.

Now the green slopes are punctuated by three new burns — the largest a few hundred square meters — the remains of a Hezbollah explosive drone shot down a few weeks ago. Park rangers fear the destruction has only just begun.

“The damage this year is ten times greater than this year,” said Shai Koren of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s Northern District.

Looking out over the slopes of Meron, Koren doesn’t expect this forest to survive the summer: “You can take a before and after picture.”

Numbers and weapons

Since the war began, the Israeli military has tracked 5,450 launches into northern Israel. According to the Israeli think tank Alma Research and Education Center, most of the early launches were short-range anti-tank missiles, but Hezbollah’s use of drones has increased.

In Lebanon, officials and human rights groups accuse Israel of white phosphorus incendiary bombs in residential areas, in addition to the regular artillery bombardments and air raids.

The Israeli military says it uses white phosphorus only as a smokescreen, not to attack populated areas. But even in open areas, the shells can cause fast-spreading fires.

The border clashes began on October 8, a day after the Hamas-led invasion of southern Israel that killed some 1,200 people and sparked the war in Gaza, where more than 37,000 people have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Hezbollah began firing rockets into northern Israel to open what it called a “support front” for Hamas to withdraw Israeli troops from Gaza.

Israel responded, and the attacks spread across the border region. In northern Israel, 16 soldiers and 11 civilians were killed. In Lebanon, more than 450 people were killed — mostly combatants, but also 80-plus civilians and noncombatants.

The exchanges have intensified since early May, when Israel launched its invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, coinciding with the start of the hot, dry forest fire season.

According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Hezbollah attacks have burned 8,700 hectares (about 21,500 acres) in northern Israel since May.

Eli Mor of the Israel Fire and Rescue Service said that drones, which are much more accurate than missiles, often “come one after the other, the first one with a camera and the second one will shoot.”

“Every launch is a real threat,” Mor added.

In southern Lebanon, about 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) have been burned by Israeli attacks, said George Mitri of the Land and Natural Resources Program at Balamand University. In the two years before that, he said, the total area burned annually in Lebanon was 500 to 600 hectares (1,200 to 1,500 acres).

Fire response

Security concerns hamper response in the first crucial hours of a fire. Firefighting aircraft are largely grounded for fear of being shot down. On the ground, firefighters often cannot move without military escorts.

“If we lose half an hour or an hour, it could take us an extra day or two days to get 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 — nearly as many as in a normal year.

Across the border, Moran Arinovsky was the chef and now deputy commander of the emergency team at Kibbutz Manara. Together with about 10 others, he has fought more than 20 fires in the past two months.

Mor, of the Israel Fire and Rescue Service, said firefighters often have to select which victims to take on.

“Sometimes we have to give up open areas that pose no danger to people or cities,” Mor said.

The border areas are largely depopulated. The Israeli government evacuated a 4-kilometer strip at the beginning of the war, leaving only soldiers and emergency personnel. In Lebanon, there is no formal evacuation order, but large areas have become virtually uninhabitable.

Some 95,000 people in Lebanon and 60,000 people in Israel have been displaced for nine months.

Kibbutz Sde Nehemia was not evacuated and Efrat Eldan Schechter says she sometimes watches helplessly as the smoke plumes move closer to home.

“There is a psychological impact, the knowledge and the feeling that we are alone,” she said, because firefighters cannot reach certain areas.

The Israeli cowboys, who herd cattle in the Golan Heights, often work together to fight fires when firefighters cannot reach the scene quickly.

Schechter noted that news footage of flames racing across hills has drawn more attention to the conflict in her backyard, rather than just the war in Gaza. “It wasn’t until the fires started that we were in the headlines in Israel,” she said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that as fighting in Gaza subsides, Israel will send more troops to its northern border, opening a new front and increasing the risk of more devastating fires.

Koren said natural fires are a normal part of the forest life cycle and can promote ecodiversity, but not the conflict fires. “The moment that the fires happen over and over again is what causes the damage,” he said.


Lidman reported from northern Israel.

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