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Displacement and upheaval in southern Lebanon as Israel intensifies airstrikes

‘There is no safe area.’

AS Israel expands its airstrikes deeper into Lebanon, hitting parts of the country previously considered safe, those already forced to flee the conflict are struggling to get by without jobs or much aid, unsure where to go next if things get even worse. 

Cross-border tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese political and militant group, have been growing since the outbreak of war in Gaza, with almost daily exchanges of fire.

But in the past few weeks, Israel has intensified its attacks on southern Lebanon, hitting targets it says are linked to Hezbollah in the southern city of Nabatieh and in the coastal town of Ghaziyeh, south of Sidon. On 26 February, Israeli planes conducted their deepest raid into Lebanon yet, bombing sites near Baalbek in the eastern Bekaa Valley.

According to UN figures, the violence has forced more than 90,000 people to flee their homes inside Lebanon since early October. Most are staying with host families, in rented apartments, or in collective shelters. 

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Until recently, cities like Nabatieh – located about 50 kilometres from the border with Israel and hosting around 18% of Lebanon’s displaced – felt relatively secure. 

But on 14 February an Israeli airstrike hit a residential building there, killing at least seven civilians from the same family, as well as, reportedly, a Hezbollah commander and two fighters. On 22 February, two Hezbollah fighters were reportedly killed in an attack on a residential building in Kfar Roummane, a town near Nabatieh. 

According to a Reuters tally, the Israeli strikes have killed at least 50 civilians in Lebanon since early October, as well as 200 fighters. 

In the aftermath of the Nabatieh strikes, the mood in the usually bustling city has been subdued, although restaurants and coffee shops remain open.

Jamal Zein, a 49-year-old father of four who usually makes his living as a farmer, is one of many who are unsure what to do next. 

Zein and his family fled the border town of Beit Lif for Nabatieh several months ago. They are now staying in the home of a friend who is out of the country.

“I lost my source of income because the harvesting season was disrupted,” he told The New Humanitarian. “My children have not gone to school since the start of the war.”

Zein is receiving some aid, and is grateful his family is safe for now. But the recent strikes have made him feel helpless and afraid of what comes next: “I have no idea where I will go in case tensions escalate further and reach all areas that are considered as safe, as has happened in the past few days.”

‘I cannot move again’

The war is compounding the hardships for many in a country that was already suffering a prolonged economic crisis. Some displaced people have lost months of wages or have had to move away from the land that was their main source of income: Many businesses near the border have had to shut up shop.

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Some who fled border areas have been able to open temporary restaurants, shops, and clinics in places like Nabatieh or Tyre – a city on the southern coast that is hosting about 31% of the country’s displaced people. 

One of those is Hussein Alawiyeh.

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For the past four years, Alawiyeh, 27, ran his own dentistry clinic in Bint Jbeil, the second largest town in Nabatieh province. Due to the Israeli airstrikes, he fled in December to Nabatieh city with his wife and child.

“I worked hard to establish a name for my clinic and build trust with the patients. I suddenly found myself displaced, and my professional and financial life are at a standstill.” 

Alawiyeh opened a new clinic in the city but, as a newcomer, has been struggling to attract patients. Faced with the possibility of moving again if the strikes keep coming, he says he can’t afford a second displacement and the costs of moving his business again.

“I worked hard to establish a name for my clinic and build trust with the patients. I suddenly found myself displaced, and my professional and financial life are at a standstill,” he told The New Humanitarian. “Even after moving the clinic, things remain unstable, because I have to start from zero. And if things escalate further in Nabatieh, I cannot move again and will leave my fate to God.”

Others have decided to stay where their work is, while their families head for relative safety.

Al-Hassan Qassem, a 42-year-old mechanic and father of three children, sent his family to Tyre while he stayed behind in their hometown of Aita al-Shaab, a village that lies just one kilometre from the border with Israel. “My work stopped because most of the village’s residents have been displaced,” he said.

Qassem now earns some money using his car to transport the belongings of displaced people from border villages to places like Nabatieh. It’s dangerous work, given the regular exchanges of fire, but he said he feels he has to take the risk to provide for his family.

Aid response gaps

Some displaced people have complained of a lack of government support. They also say there’s not enough assistance from local aid groups or international aid organisations to address their growing economic, healthcare, and other needs. 

According to a UN report, Lebanon’s Ministry of Social Affairs provided cash assistance to 16,500 displaced families in the southern region and Nabatieh province, although the amount wasn’t mentioned. It said the aid was a one-time programme because of limited funds. It also distributed 121,204 “essential items” to displaced people.

In late January, Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar said the ministry also gave 18,647 households impacted by the war one-time emergency cash transfers totalling $2.5 million. In November, along with the UN Population Fund, it opened a mobile reproductive health clinic that has been touring shelters in Tyre. There are plans for two more.

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The ministry has also launched five mobile clinics in the south and Nabatieh to “provide psychosocial support, especially to women and children, in collaboration with the municipalities in those areas”. The clinics will target 3,000 people over the next five months.

UN agencies, as well as international and local NGOs, are working to help displaced people in the south and people impacted by the war, although a recent UN update says “the humanitarian response to people residing in border villages remains limited mostly due to security constraints”. Another update mentioned the distribution of hundreds of thousands of meals and food parcels to people in collective shelters and those staying elsewhere, plus water, hygiene materials, and various other services like healthcare. 

But there are gaps.

“No one knows their fate, and nothing is clear in light of the recent escalation: There is no safe area in the south of Lebanon.”

Firas Fares, who works for south Lebanon’s water company, was displaced from the border town of Houla to the town of Tebnine, about 25 kilometres east of Tyre, with his elderly parents three months ago. 

“I moved to the Tebnine branch because of the company’s closure on the border,” Fares, 39, explained. “We are trying to make ends meet from my salary. Before that, we used to depend on cultivating the land and selling what we grew, such as olives, tobacco, and grains. But we lost the harvest season this year because of the shelling.”

Fares criticised what he said was a complete absence of government support and assistance, adding that displaced people have “no access to medical or aid relief services except for a few organisations who cannot address the massive needs”.

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“No one knows their fate, and nothing is clear in light of the recent escalation: There is no safe area in the south of Lebanon,” he said.

In addition to those newly displaced by the war, Lebanon is host to around 1.5 million Syrian refugees and more than 489,000 registered Palestinian refugees. Around half of the country’s Palestinians live in formal camps, but there are no official camps for Syrians, who began arriving after the start of Syria’s war in 2011.

Funding limits local aid

Jad, who asked that his real name not be published because of security concerns, has already been displaced twice. The 31-year-old had been working in southern Lebanon with a local NGO on issues such as demining, gender-based violence, and child protection.

He fled Bint Jbeil for Toulin, a village in Nabatieh, in November, but was forced to move again, as the situation worsened, to a village near Aley, north of Beirut. Jad said he lost his job in Bint Jbeil after his employer, who he declined to name, suspended his work due to the war. He said other local NGOs had also shut down, due to a lack of funding. 

Jad, who cares for his elderly mother, said local NGOs and the government are helping people in the south, but not families like his who have fled further afield.

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Some friends helped Jad rent an apartment in Aley. After the 14 February airstrikes in Nabatieh, he was joined by his sister and her family.

“Local NGOs are focused on people in the south and are not well coordinated to provide support in other areas,” Jad said. “We do not rely on the government for any support.”

Baneen, a local NGO that focuses on providing primary healthcare and social services in the south, told The New Humanitarian it has been able to help some displaced people but it doesn’t have the funding to expand its operations further.

Spokesperson Mariam al-Atrash said Baneen had helped some 20,000 displaced people with financial aid, food, medicine, and clothing, as well as giving $15,000 worth of medicine and equipment to two hospitals. 

“We do not receive any support from the government or international organisations, and we solely rely on donations,” al-Atrash said. “Matters are getting worse every day, and the number of people who need help is increasing. Our main concern now is funding.”

The group, supported by local businesspeople and the Lebanese diaspora in Australia, said it is working in all the main locations that are sheltering displaced people as well as the border and has recently begun helping those who have fled to Beirut.

Some of those who have had to leave their homes are not looking to the government or aid groups to get by but to money sent home from abroad. 

Heba Jomaa, 34, who has been working at the Bint Jbeil public library for eight years, was forced to leave her job and escape the violence multiple times with her sister and sick parents.

“At the beginning of the war, I went with my parents and sister to Tyre,” she said, adding that her father had been hospitalised there due to a previous illness. “Then, we were displaced to Beirut, where we are now staying with my brother. I had to leave my job.”

Both Jomaa and her sister are now unemployed, and struggling to provide for their parents. They are relying on money sent home from siblings working abroad.

“We thought it was going to be a matter of days and we will return to our home,” she said. “It has been five months and our fate remains unknown.”

This story was published in collaboration with Egab, a news service empowering local journalists across the Middle East and Africa. Edited by Hanan Nasser and Annie Slemrod. Photographs were provided by Lebanese journalists whose names are being withheld due to security concerns.

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By KAMAR GHOSSN

Lebanon-based freelance journalist, entrepreneur, and intersectional activist for marginalised groups and causes, covering humanitarian and human rights issues in MENA

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