Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel spark fires, destroy thousands of acres

Written by on July 7, 2024

Amir Levy/Getty Images

(LIMAN, Israel) — Before Oct. 7, Sigal Malachi would wake up at 5 a.m. each day to water her plants, remove weeds, and produce cuttings. The co-owner of a greenhouse in northern Israel, she said her home was once a lush paradise.

Now, it’s a war zone.

Like others living close to the Lebanon border, Malachi is one of what the Israeli government estimates are tens of thousands of Israelis uprooted from their homes because of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Forced to shutter her family business, Malachi packed her belongings and left Moshav Liman, an agricultural community in northern Israel on the Mediterranean coast, only a few miles south of the Lebanon border.

Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese militia group, began launching near-daily rocket attacks on northern Israel on Oct. 8, the day after the Iran-allied Palestinian militant group Hamas led an unprecedented incursion from the Gaza Strip into neighboring southern Israel, igniting the war. Hezbollah has said it is striking Israel in solidarity with Palestinians and won’t stop until there is a cease-fire in Hamas-ruled Gaza, where an ongoing air and ground assault by the Israeli military has caused widespread devastation.

In Israel, at least 1,200 people were killed and 6,900 others injured by Hamas and other Palestinian militants during the Oct. 7 attack, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In Gaza, more than 38,000 people have been killed and 87,000 others wounded by Israeli forces since Oct. 7, according to the territory’s Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health. Meanwhile, Israel and Hezbollah have exchanged cross-border fire as tensions have escalated in the region.

On June 12, Hezbollah fired hundreds of rockets into northern Israel, the largest attack on the country since the war in Gaza began. The group said it was in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike that killed one of its senior commanders in southern Lebanon.

Malachi, a 46-year-old mother of two, is one of an estimated 60,000 people who, for their own safety, have been evacuated from northern Israel in the face of the Hezbollah rocket attacks, according to the Israeli government.

But the attacks have also brought with them an environmental cost, in the form of thousands of acres of wildfires.

“It’s dangerous, it’s coming next to the houses,” Malachi told ABC News of the fires. “Even if it’s not coming to the houses, it’s killing forests and it’s killing all the life on the ground.”

Yehoshua Shkedy, chief scientist for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, has been monitoring the environmental damage the fires have caused. Vegetation in the north of Israel is much more widespread than in the south, he said, meaning the fire risk in the north is much higher.

“If this war is going to continue, we’re going to see more and more fire in the woodlands,” Shkedy told ABC News.

He said the fire ruins vegetation, harms soil quality, and burns small animals that cannot easily escape, including lizards, rodents, snails, and invertebrates.

“As we progress, the effects of the fire are more severe,” Shkedy said. “The soil itself is getting burned sometimes – cooked. It’s like in the oven, and then it’s becoming infertile for quite a while.”

He warned that after a hot, dry summer, September and October could be highly dangerous.

“Right now we have four times more fires than we have every year,” Shkedy said. “It is bad now, and it’s going to be worse toward the autumn.”

Gilad Ostrovsky is the chief forester of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), a nonprofit organization that for decades has helped manage Israel’s forests. He said crews are treating the forests and working to reduce fire risk by creating fuel breaks – that is, buffer lines with little to no combustible vegetation that separate settlements and forests by about 70 meters, or about 230 feet.

“Those buffer lines within the forest means they are wide enough to let fire trucks get in safely, but when the fire becomes bigger and more [intense], we have to call the airplanes,” Ostrovsky told ABC News, adding that using planes is also dangerous because Hezbollah could shoot them down with missiles.

“We are very worried,” Ostrovsky said.

With tensions increasing between Hezbollah and Israel, the prospect of future fires is concerning. Ostrovsky said flames from past fires reached some houses near the northernmost Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona. Some farmers, he said, lost orchards and agricultural land to the fires.

Ostrovsky said within two weeks in June, the forest fires in Israel sparked by Hezbollah rockets burned about 5,000 hectares – more than 12,000 acres – hitting the Biriya Forest national park, the Naftali mountains, and the Bar’am Forest Nature Preserve, all of them only a few miles from the border with Lebanon.

Ostrovsky said even Hezbollah rockets intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system can spark fires. “Even if we are successful in not letting the missiles get in, there is a massive explosion in the air. And then thousands of pieces spread all over and each piece can start a fire,” Ostrovsky said, which in turn makes managing the multiple blazes more challenging.

“It’s not just one place that it started. Now, because of the war and the rockets, it is starting all over, all over,” he continued. “It’s very hard for us to say, ‘Okay, we can be prepared.’ The uncertainty is very high. That’s the problem.”

Beyond immediate safety operations, forest rehabilitation will take years, Ostrovsky said.

“In the northern part of Israel, we prefer natural regeneration,” he said, noting that because northern Israel gets more rain than southern Israel and has more vegetation, regrowth can be assessed a few years after the fires to determine which sections of the forest need to be replanted.

The positive news, he added, is that many volunteers arrived in June to help firefighters.

Malachi, who now rents an apartment in Givat Ela, a small village east of the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, told ABC News that she makes the hour-long drive back to Moshav Liman three days a week to care for her plants and property. Others also began venturing back in June to cut grass, remove dried herbs and perform other tasks to help prevent future fires, Malachi said. Yet with so many empty towns, she worries the land is more vulnerable to fire because it’s been unkept for so long.

“It’s not going to be easy and it’s sad and I hope it will stop,” she said of the violence. While her home has been spared, Malachi said it’s shocking to see the north ablaze.

“You cry and you don’t believe it’s happened,” she said. “You see people fighting the fire and it’s scary. It’s affected everybody.”

Malachi said it will take a long time for communities and agriculture to recover. “It’s not like tomorrow we put again a new tree and try to make everything new. It’s not so easy,” she said, emphasizing the enormity of the fires. Yet she’s confident that it will happen.

“Everybody will come and help make the north again new,” she said.

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