As flames engulfed communities in Israel’s north following Hezbollah rockets, brave local citizens and volunteers moved quickly and worked tirelessly to extinguish them. Meanwhile, the government was nowhere to be found

Allison Kaplan Sommer. Jun 4, 2024

As flames and fires engulfed communities in Israel’s north on Sunday and Monday after Hezbollah rockets fired from Lebanon ignited the hot, dry forests and fields full of brush, brave local citizens and volunteers moved quickly and worked tirelessly to extinguish them – while the government was nowhere to be found.

Just like the days following October 7, the bitter complaints of local officials and residents of the north fighting the fires threatening their communities – the vast majority of which have been evacuated and empty for the past eight months – were two-fold.

 Fires burn as a result of rockets launched from Lebanon into northern Israel, next to the city of Kiryat Shmona near the Lebanon border, on June 3, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters. (Photo by Jalaa MAREY / AFP)Credit: AFP

First, they are furious that the government has done too little to prevent or deter the strikes with a more aggressive response in Lebanon – presumably out of a desire not to escalate the situation on the northern border while war continues in Gaza. Secondly, after the rockets and drones sparked fires, they felt that the national authorities had abandoned them.

“It was as if we were transported back in time to 100 years,” a member of Kibbutz Kfar Giladi told Israeli radio on Monday, describing how the local rapid response teams of the community charged with security put down their rifles and took up hoses, battling the fires, which threatened the mostly empty buildings, as well as agricultural land. “We had to take care of ourselves.”

The kibbutz on the northern border was established in 1916, decades before the state, by pioneers responsible for their own security and safety.

Local residents and officials complained that the government was reluctant to send firefighting planes to douse the flames for fear of Hezbollah using the opportunity to shoot them down, and that firefighting teams from further south were slow to come to their aid because of the security situation, leaving the burden on them.

“We’re losing the north,” blared the headlines across the television news screens, as an estimated 3,700 acres of scorched communities, agricultural fields and nature reserves were added to the toll the ongoing conflict with Iran’s proxies has taken on the country.

By Tuesday, the battle had been joined by teams from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Jewish National Fund, the IDF and the police, including four firefighting planes equipped with flame-retardant material.

While residents of the north worked to douse flames, right-wing members of the government chose to fan them online, saying that the fires only illustrated the need to counterattack more fiercely in the north.

“It is time for all of Lebanon to burn,” declared National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir in a visit to Kiryat Shmona on Tuesday (after he was criticized for failing to show up in the north the previous day.)

But it isn’t only extremists who say something has to be done to reign in the increasingly bold attacks by Hezbollah that are devastating northern Israel. Those who made their homes there have spent the past eight months displaced, living as refugees in their own country, watching their communities be bombed from afar, destroying the beauty along with their safety.

As Menachem Horowitz, a veteran Channel 12 News journalist and Kiryat Shmona resident put it, “People here are asking me if this is our fate. No, we don’t have to burn all of Lebanon. But we have to declare in a way that Hezbollah understands that this unceasing rocket fire has to stop. If we don’t, the residents of Kiryat Shmona and the rest of the north will lose faith that they will be able to return home in the near future.” 

But it isn’t Hezbollah that let down Horowitz and his neighbors. “This war opened our eyes and lowered our expectations from the state,” he said. “We know now that there are some things that the state of Israel cannot promise its citizens who are living on the border.”