What guarding the most dangerous border in the Middle East looks like: Surrounded by Hezbollah on three sides

The soldiers at the checkpoint on the outskirts of Metula are all locals, mostly middle-aged reservists with no illusions about what kind of force is on the other side of the border.

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A barbed wire fence and cameras stretch along the border around the Israeli town of Metula, Photo: BBC
A barbed wire fence and cameras stretch along the border around the Israeli town of Metula, Photo: BBC

The road to the northernmost Israeli city of Metula is a lonely drive, along a piece of land surrounded on three sides by Lebanon. This means that it is surrounded on three sides by the most powerful Lebanese armed group, Hezbollah.

The soldiers at the checkpoint on the edge of Metula are all locals, mostly middle-aged reservists with no illusions about what kind of force is on the other side of the border.

As the rain pours down on the bleak, foggy night, one of them, who did not want to be named, traces an entire circle with his finger, pointing to the border and Hezbollah positions.

"Half a kilometer to the west, almost a whole kilometer to the north and another kilometer to the east. Hezbollah, therefore, surrounds us 300 degrees."

The remaining 60 degrees, he says, comprise the steep road that descends back to the rest of Israel.

The war in Gaza, which began after the October 7 attack by Hamas, in which around 1.300 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed, was devastating.

The ensuing Israeli offensive has so far killed more than 27.000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry, and caused widespread destruction in Gaza.

with the BBC

The ensuing border conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has gradually escalated, but both sides know how much worse it would be if it exploded into a full-blown war.

This is perfectly clear to the men who stand watch on the rim of Metula.

The Israeli reservist continues: "Yes, it can definitely turn into a big war and a big war with Hezbollah is not like with Hamas, they are a real army, very trained, well equipped and have a lot of experience, real experience from Syria."

Hezbollah intervened in the war in Syria, fighting on the side of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has no plans to visit Metula during his current Middle East tour, but the long flight from Washington and time spent in various capitals in the Middle East must be grimly familiar to him by now.

He returned to the region for the fifth time since October 7.

Blinken did not try to downplay the magnitude of the crisis in the Middle East.

At the end of January, while standing next to the NATO Secretary General, he said that the situation was "incredibly unstable".

"I would say that we haven't had such a dangerous situation across the region since at least 1973, and very likely even before that."

What a comparison.

The Middle East war of 1973 turned into one of the most dangerous superpower confrontations during the Cold War.

While US President Richard Nixon was preoccupied with the Watergate scandal, his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger placed US strategic forces on the highest peacetime combat readiness, Defcon 3, following reports that the USSR was moving nuclear weapons to the Middle East.

Half a century later, Blinken spoke after paramilitaries trained and funded by Iran killed three American soldiers at a base in Jordan.

Meanwhile, the US, aided by the UK in Yemen, has launched an ongoing campaign of airstrikes in retaliation.

The Americans hope that they have calibrated the reaction to stabilize the situation and not make it worse, but this is not at all certain.

Militant critics of President Biden in Washington claim that the action taken so far will not deter Iran, which supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as Shiite paramilitary groups in Syria and Iraq.

The hawks argue that only direct attacks on Iran will force Tehran to order intermediaries and allies to withdraw.

The Biden administration believes that a direct attack on Iran risks detonating into a wider conflict in the Middle East.

During Secretary Blinken's previous visits, he repeatedly expressed American support for Israel's war against Hamas, but also serious doubts about the way Israel is fighting.

Washington, unsuccessfully, calls for restraint.

The US continues to supply Israel with the weapons it needs for the campaign, despite its misgivings about how they are being used.

America has had somewhat more success in forcing Israel to pass up a much larger amount of humanitarian aid to the more than two million Palestinian civilians trapped in the disaster.

In October last year, Israeli leaders vowed that nothing would be allowed to enter.

Even so, the UN and aid groups active in Gaza say Israel has not missed nearly as much as it should.

Die-hard aid officials with long careers trying to help civilians in war zones told me they had never seen anything this bad.

One who has been inside Gaza several times in the past few months (Israel and Egypt, which control the borders, do not allow journalists to enter) said he had "never seen anything of this size, scale and depth".

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Blinken's top priority is to secure a ceasefire in Gaza.

President Biden needs to calm the Middle East, not only because of the dire risks of an ongoing and escalating war, but also because he has an election at home this year.

Polls show he is rapidly losing votes as some Americans blame his support for Israel for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

A renewed flurry of diplomacy, involving the US, Qatar, Egypt and Israel, produced the broad parameters of the agreement, but not its details.

Hamas presented its own terms.

He wants a three-stage, 135-day process that would allow for a staged hostage exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

He has a long list of demands.

The most important thing is that by the end of that period, Israel must withdraw its forces from Gaza and the war will end.

All of this was rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a meeting with Secretary of State Blinken.

Since the beginning of the war, Israel has defined victory as the destruction of Hamas and the safe return of the hostages.

None of these goals have yet been achieved.

Netanyahu said Israel would not make concessions to Hamas and reiterated the claim that its forces were closing in on "total victory".

In recent days, he also said that Israel must kill the leaders of Hamas.

Blinken still believes, he said later, that such an agreement is possible.

His biggest challenge is to try to bridge the gap between the diametrically opposed positions of Israel and Hamas in order to achieve some sort of truce.

The BBC has information that Hamas is much less confident than it was at the beginning of the war.

The ferocity of the Israeli attack and the loss of so many civilians means that the war-torn Gazans are turning against Hamas, leading its leaders to realize that they must try to negotiate.

In Israel, despite the confident statements of the prime minister and his allies, pressure is growing for a truce to create conditions for the return of the hostages.

That doesn't give Blinken much room to work.

All odds are against a truce unless one or both sides make significant concessions.

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