More than 85% of his city has been evacuated as Hezbollah continues to launch rockets across the border from Lebanon, but Kiryat Shmona Mayor Avichai Stern is, without a doubt, calm, cool and collected.
“Hezbollah’s Radwan Force is right here on the fence. You can see it from the town. When I see them start to leave their positions, I understand that something must be happening in a short while and there will probably be a rocket attack,” he said matter-of-factly. “They fire anti-tank missiles at our houses, since it is so close to the city, they don’t even need to use their long-distance rockets.”
Since the war began on Oct. 7, 2023, around 21,000 of Kiryat Shmona’s 24,000 residents have been evacuated, scattered among 223 different hotels from the north down to Eilat. But Stern and 3,000 others have remained. Some have critical roles, such as firefighters, medical workers, municipal employees and people caring for livestock. Others have health conditions that make moving impossible, while a few simply refuse to leave.
“We have to take care of the wounded from those shootings, there are over a dozen houses in the city that were damaged, hundreds of vehicles were burned…kindergartens and a high school building were damaged,” said Stern.
He sets aside weekends to leave Kiryat Shmona and visit evacuated residents. They seem to look forward to the mayor’s visits, but he said he looks forward to them even more, as meeting them encourages him to keep going.
“Our residents are very strong and, despite the difficulty, they all understand the meaning of all this. They will not return home until they are assured of peace and they do not want it to be only a few years of peace before the cycle repeats. The residents expect long-term peace, for decades at least. They tell me, let’s finish dealing with this threat now, no matter how long it takes. They are ready to stay strong and wait until the problem is solved,” he said.
Stern has been serving as the mayor of Kiryat Shmona for over five years. He was born and raised in the border city and knows all too well the threats it faces. Since 2018, Hezbollah has boasted of its ability to seize Israel’s Galilee region with larger, better-trained terror units than those possessed by Hamas.
“No sovereign country would allow the enemy to sit on its fences, and yet we are talking about the current situation in terms of low-intensity war,” said Stern. “But you cannot let tens of thousands of people live their lives when there is still a very tangible and real death threat, as we saw three months ago at the Gaza border.”
He said it was a “miracle” that on Oct. 7 “the threat did not materialize here,” but added that if it had, it would have meant not 1,200 murdered civilians, “but 10,000 murdered at least.”
Stern follows closely the preparations of the Iran-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah terrorist organization, particularly its Radwan unit. The unit’s primary mission is to rapidly infiltrate northern Israel, seize control of communities and take hostages, similar to the Hamas onslaught of Oct. 7. The Radwan unit has considerable combat experience in Syria and is regarded as an elite force compared to Hamas.
“My fear is that eventually we may lack the essential international support and find ourselves compelled to compromise in yet another international agreement that won’t yield any tangible benefits on the ground,” said Stern.
“We are familiar with the dynamics of such international agreements; no one really respects them, not even the UNIFIL forces that are supposed to enforce them. [U.N.] Resolution 1701 has proved to be ineffective.”
Under the terms of Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War, a demilitarized zone was to have been established between the Blue Line and Lebanon’s Litani River, under the aegis of UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Israeli officials have been critical of UNIFIL’s inability to stop Hezbollah or enforce the resolution.
On Sunday, 76-year-old Mira Ayalon and her son Barak were killed when Hezbollah fired an anti-tank rocket that struck their home in Moshav Kfar Yuval.
“The way to deal with this is to destroy the infrastructure, all those villas that Hezbollah has built on the fence—those houses have tunnels and infrastructure under them that are used for terrorist purposes. Unfortunately, there is no other way but a ground incursion to eliminate the threat. Only after it’s removed will it be possible to return to normality in the town and the area,” said Stern.
He went on to say that he hopes that Israelis and the international community do not forget what is at stake as time passes and memories fade.
“It’s been three months since the war broke out and people have started to forget the images” of Hamas’s atrocities, he says. “It’s important to remember that we are facing a cruel enemy who burned babies alive, raped and murdered women, murdered parents in front of their children, abused and raped corpses. Is that who we hope to negotiate with and sign agreements with?”