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‘I will be the last one to leave’: Fighting at Lebanon-Israel border creates a ghost town | World News

Najib al Amil, a 72-year-old priest in the Lebanese town of Rmeish, on the border with Israel, raced to harvest his olive trees as the sound of shelling rumbled in the distance. Soon, his olive groves could be a battlefield, he worried, and there would be no trees left to harvest.

“We put our faith in God,” he said.

Only a short distance from his home, clashes have been intensifying between Israel and Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militant group that dominates the surrounding countryside.

The skirmishes have raised fears of a wider conflict that could further devastate Lebanon after years of crisis and that could push Israel to fight on another front even as it prepares for an anticipated ground war in the Gaza Strip. Israel has already evacuated more than 152,000 people near the border, while more than 20,000 people have so far been displaced in Lebanon, according to the U.N. migration agency.

Rmeish, a Maronite Christian town that, two weeks ago, was home to 10,000 people, has become a ghost town. More than three-quarters of its population has fled. Schools are closed. Shops are empty. And the only medical facility that remains open is a field hospital staffed by a skeleton crew of volunteer doctors and nurses.

Even before the fighting, the town was surviving on just a few hours of state-provided electricity per day. Now, residents are running out of fuel for their generators, too.

Festive offer

“The village needs help,” Milad al Alam, the town’s mayor, said over the phone. “The government is just not available for us,” he said, adding that they were also running out of lifesaving medication.

Lebanon, which endured years of civil war and has fought multiple conflicts with Israel, has struggled further since a financial meltdown in 2019 precipitated by years of corruption and mismanagement sunk the country into one of the world’s worst economic crises in 150 years.

In the absence of a functioning state, Hezbollah’s social services network has largely weathered the storm, and in the heartlands of southern Lebanon, where fears of an Israeli invasion are most acute, the group is seen by many as the main line of defense.

Rmeish is one of the few towns in the region without strong support for Hezbollah. Much of the town was leveled in 2006 when Hezbollah launched a cross-border ambush and Israel responded with a ground invasion that left more than 1,000 Lebanese citizens, mostly civilians, dead.

Analysts say that at this point neither side particularly wants to escalate the conflict, and Israel’s defense minister reiterated Thursday that Israel had “no interest in expanding the war” into Lebanon. But as Hezbollah launches increasing tit-for-tat attacks on Israel from the surrounding fields, and near-daily Israeli bombardment draws closer, many here feel they are being dragged against their will into a repeat of the country’s bloody history.

“We are not friends with war, or want any war,” al Amil said. “It’s between Gaza and Israel.”

But he said he felt powerless to do anything about it. “If Hezbollah wants to do what they want, who can prevent them?” he said.

Residents say they maintain cordial, but tense, relations with the militant group.

In December, residents of Rmeish clashed with Green Without Borders, an environmental organization sanctioned by the United States for being “a cover for Hezbollah’s activities,” and whose structures have been targeted by Israeli strikes in recent days.

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Asked if he would flee to Beirut, the Lebanese capital, as tensions at the border grew again, al Amil, the town’s priest, struck a defiant tone.

“I will be the last one to leave,” he said, adding that he had celebrated Mass all through the 2006 war, and would do so once again.

“Israel will strike Beirut as much as here, and the situation will be the same,” he said. “At least here we have our own homes.”

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