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Israelis use garden tools to fight forest fires sparked by Hezbollah rockets

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Three rusty water carts stand on the edge of Kibbutz Malkiya, on Israel’s border with Lebanon; They’re a little bigger than a family car and look like something out of an old cartoon.

A collection of industrial leaf blowers are stacked nearby.

“This is all we have,” resident Dean Sweetland explained. “We only have these – and the leaf blowers – to blow the fire back into the dead areas.”

Dean, a Londoner who moved to the kibbutz eight years ago, is one of dozens of residents still battling the area’s recent bushfires, sparked by Hezbollah rockets from Lebanon.

“We are on our own,” he says. “The flames can reach six meters in height. Sometimes you just can’t get close to it.”

He gestures to the leaf blowers standing in the sun.

“And we fight it with garden tools.”

Israeli officials say the fires – caused by Hezbollah rockets – have destroyed 3,500 hectares (Reuters)

In recent days, images of the fires have made headlines in Israel.

The fires, which started when Hezbollah rockets hit dry bushes in high summer temperatures, have destroyed 3,500 hectares, according to forest managers.

Monday was “a battle day,” said Israel’s Fire and Rescue Commissioner Eyal Caspi, with 94 fires burning in these northern hills.

Most are now disabled or under control, but rockets fly over houses here several times a day and each rocket has the potential to start a new fire.

And there are currently places where firefighters don’t go.

“There is a war here and in a war zone the operations are different,” Mr Caspi told Israeli radio station Kan News.

“In certain areas, where there is no immediate danger to human life… where the military knows that the firefighters could be injured, it instructs us not to enter. And I support it.”

The fires are fueling demands that the Israeli government take steps to end the escalating conflict with Hezbollah (BBC).

From the back patio of his home – built from shipping containers, a few hundred yards from the Lebanese border – Dean Sweetland points to the plumes of gray smoke rising from the nearby hills, to the sounds of distant bombs and fighter jets.

Most other residents of Kibbutz Malkiya were evacuated in the days after the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7, when Hezbollah allies in Lebanon began shooting at communities here. Both armed groups are labeled as terrorist organizations by Israel, the US and others.

But Dean, who previously served in the British Army, stayed on. He is part of a group of residents from border communities who are rushing to extinguish fires that firefighters cannot access.

The Israeli army, he says, is not a solution.

“Especially if we are in sight of Hezbollah, they will see the soldiers and send a missile,” he says. “We hear the drones when we put out the fires.”

The town of Kiryat Shmona was hit by rocket fire from Lebanon on Tuesday (Reuters)

In the early days of the war, Dean says, tanks were parked around the kibbutz and attracted a lot of Hezbollah fire.

They have now left and between the bombings there is peace in the kibbutz. But Dean and his neighbors feel the void. Families evacuated eight months ago are still living in temporary shelters further south.

The fires here are a vivid reminder that the Israeli government’s promise to secure these northern areas and return residents to their homes has still not been fulfilled.

“We feel like we’re the forgotten people,” Dean says. “They don’t care about the north.”

The attitude of many in the country, he says, is ‘let it burn’.

“I think we have to eliminate Hezbollah over a distance of ten kilometers, maybe even more,” said Yariv Rozenberg, deputy commander of Kibbutz Malkiya’s civil defense team.

“You can’t kill them all, and they won’t leave here. But we need more military here, and we need to get back to our lives – to bring our families back.”

As the months pass, pressure increases on the Israeli government to resolve this conflict and get people home.

Israel’s far-right Security Minister this week called on Israel to destroy “all Hezbollah strongholds: destruction, war!” to set on fire.

Others are more measured. A war with Hezbollah would be a much more difficult and dangerous conflict than Israel’s conflict in Gaza.

Hezbollah’s deputy head, Sheikh Naim Qassem, told Al Jazeera television that the group was not seeking to widen the conflict, but that any Israeli expansion of the war would be met “with destruction.”

Israeli Prime Minister threatened “very intense action” against Hezbollah on Wednesday during a visit to Kiryat Shmona (AFP)

Ahead of a War Cabinet meeting to discuss the situation on Tuesday evening, Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said the country was “approaching the point where a decision will have to be made.”

The armed forces, he said, were “prepared and ready to launch an offensive.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday during a visit to troops and firefighters in the northern city of Kiryat Shmona that the government was prepared for “a very strong action in the north.”

“One way or another we will restore security in the north,” he said.

Many believe a ceasefire in Gaza would help cool the situation further north.

“Gaza is the key,” says Dean. “It has to be addressed somehow. Then Hezbollah will stop, because they are doing this in support of Hamas.”

The northern conflict is closely linked to the war in Gaza.

Over the past eight months, the Israeli leader has tried to contain this conflict, with an emphasis on Gaza.

Now he faces a glaring reminder of this other front: caught between the war he hasn’t ended in the South, and the war he doesn’t necessarily want to start.

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