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Shtula, the latest spark in the flare-up between Israel and Lebanon: ‘We fear another escalation’

The death of a builder caused by a Hezbollah missile adds fuel to the fire on Israel’s northern border as the war with Hamas in Gaza rages on

Guerra entre Israel y Gaza
Military officer Shalev Hatan, at the site in Shtula where a missile fired by Hezbollah hit and killed an Israeli construction worker on Sunday.Luis de Vega
Luis de Vega

The thin droplets that fall slowly trickle into the pool of blood without diluting the dark red color. “It was here,” says Shalev Hatan, a 22-year-old serviceman, in the rain despite the clear evidence. He points to the spot where a missile hit the Israeli village of Shtula, in the Upper Galilee region, from across the neighboring border with Lebanon. The attack that took place just after 9 a.m. on Sunday morning took the life of one person and wounded three others. It was claimed by the Lebanese Shia guerrilla group Hezbollah, supported by Iran, which acknowledged firing some 20 missiles. The four victims were Arab construction workers of Israeli nationality who were hit while building a new house. At the site, the van they had gone to work in remains half destroyed by the bombing. The spot attacked is certainly not an Israeli military base, as claimed by Hezbollah.

In quantitative terms, it is impossible to compare this incident in Shtula with the number of victims who have lost their lives around the Gaza Strip in the last eight days, since Hamas unleashed its deadly attack and Israel embarked on an indiscriminate bombardment of the Palestinian territory. Yet the construction worker was killed in an area considered to be a powder keg, and the rocket fired by Hezbollah was much more than a mere match. The risk of an escalation in these border hills stands at its highest and, as Gaza and its surroundings descend into an inferno, it could open a new front in the war. Indeed, tension and gunfire from both sides has escalated since October 8, the day after Hamas perpetrated its massacre. There are at least 16 dead so far, most of them on the Lebanese side. The Shia militants claimed on their television channel on Sunday that their men had successfully planted their flag and seized an Israeli checkpoint.

“I fear another escalation,” says Shlomi Hatan, the 54-year-old father of Shalev. Both of them are part of the bunch of uniformed men defending the village, stationed in front of the yellow metal gate lining the access road that winds down the hillside. “We have no choice but to defend ourselves,” he says. The previous escalation he is referring to was in the summer of 2006, which left more than a thousand dead in Lebanon and over 150 in Israel. All the men guarding Shtula comprise part of the corps of more than 300,000 reserve troops mobilized in recent days by Israel amid the escalating violence.

In the early afternoon, the village is pervaded by silence, stillness and emptiness. Nearby, a few meters away, is the border known as the Blue Line, around which the U.N. peacekeeping mission (UNIFIL) is striving to maintain the calm from Lebanon. On Sunday, one of the missiles crashed into the headquarters and its origin is being investigated by the Blue Helmets. The few remaining residents of Shtula — of some 300 inhabitants — were virtually all evacuated after the latest attack. This eerie calm is only interrupted by the sound of Israeli artillery fire towards Lebanese territory. “They are ours,” stresses one of the soldiers. Hezbollah acknowledged that one of its members was killed in the area on Sunday.

Ora Hatan (center) is among the few civilians remaining in Shtula after the Hezbollah attack from Lebanon on Sunday.
Ora Hatan (center) is among the few civilians remaining in Shtula after the Hezbollah attack from Lebanon on Sunday.Luis de Vega

Meanwhile, Shalev Hatan scans the horizon and then points to the spot where Aita al-Shaab stands, towards which the Israeli counterattack is directed. Shortly after the Shtula bombardment, the authorities established a 2.5-mile closed security zone south of the border. Military radios alert of a new attack from Lebanon, this time against the Hanita kibbutz, in the same area. On the Lebanese side, a projectile from Israel killed a Reuters reporter on Friday. According to Hezbollah, Sunday’s missile launches came in response to that fatality. Two other Lebanese people were killed on Saturday around the Sheba farms, a Syrian-Lebanese enclave occupied by Israel since 1967.

Next to the gate that leads to the village, a concrete hut serves as a shelter. “All this is very simple,” says 35-year-old Gilad Samipur, brandishing his rifle, as he adopts the tone of an analyst to underscore the importance of the dead construction worker in “a strategic place.” “This is the beginning of World War III. The spark ignited in Gaza. The United States supports Israel. The conflict will spread here, in the north. And opposite, Iran, Syria, Russia, China,” concludes Samipur, who describes himself as an “Iranian Jew,” since his parents were forced to flee to Israel at the end of the 1970s under pressure from the Ayatollah regime. However, he does not place too much importance on the fact that the enemy in front of him is precisely the militants supported by Tehran. “I’m not here to attack, but to defend my homeland, Israel,” he concludes.

The road that practically runs parallel to the dividing line between the two countries is a non-stop stream of troops moving back and forth. Dozens of tanks and armored vehicles could be seen among the trees on Sunday. Near Hanita, the other border enclave on the Israeli side bombed from Lebanon, dozens of soldiers arrive on two buses. Behind them, there is a huge convoy of military vehicles.

Hatan is the prevailing surname in Shtula, points out Ora Hatan, a 58-year-old woman who is one of the few remaining civilians. “Missiles are striking everywhere. Tel Aviv, Haifa... This is our land and no one will remove us, even if the war reaches our home,” she says. “If we are attacked from the south, from Gaza, and from the north, from Lebanon, only God can save us,” she adds. Next to her, Shlomi Hatan indignantly makes the gesture of slicing his neck. “The Palestinians are animals who want to do away with us. Why do some people in Spain support them?” he asks angrily and insistently. “Not animals at all. Show compassion,” Ora tries to stop him in vain.

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