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In Northern Israel, a deserted town bears witness to a different war

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There are two wars now underway on Israel's borders - the war in Gaza, of course, and also in Israel's north, where towns near the border with Lebanon have been evacuated because of daily rocket fire from Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah. NPR's Elissa Nadworny sends this report from a ghost town named Metula.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: About 60,000 Israelis have been evacuated from their homes in northern Israel. There are checkpoints blocking cars from driving too close to the border. But we've gotten special permission from the Israeli military to visit the town of Metula, Israel's northernmost city, surrounded by Lebanon on three sides.

It's extremely quiet. There's no people. This whole neighborhood is just completely empty.

The quaint town usually has about 1,500 residents. Nearly all of them have been evacuated and moved into hotels further south. The town has been hit over and over again by missiles from Hezbollah in the last six months, and the damage to homes is stark. A hundred and thirty have been damaged or destroyed.

Oh, wow. So this house has been hit. The roof is completely damaged. Let's see if we can walk around back.

Around back, the house's exterior wall is crumpled in a pile, the windows and doors mangled. I leave that house and walk further into the neighborhood.

And you can see damaged homes walking down the street and broken glass from where rockets have hit. And we're about, I mean, meters from the border with Lebanon.

I'm wearing protective gear, a vest and a helmet. The proximity to the border, the fact that this town is so exposed makes it a perfect target.

Here you can see, just the next hill over there is Lebanon.

Israel always returns fire. Villages across southern Lebanon have also been badly damaged.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN GLASS TINKLING)

DAVID AZULAI: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: The town's head of council, David Azulai, is one of the few residents who's remained. He's sleeping in a safe room.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR BANGING)

NADWORNY: He surveys the damage to another house, its second floor blackened from a rocket's impact. The laundry is still hung up on the line, blowing in the wind.

AZULAI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He gets up in the morning.

AZULAI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He goes around the city.

AZULAI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He cries a lot. He cries all the time.

NADWORNY: It's Azulai's job to photograph the damage and call his residents to tell them their homes have been hit.

AZULAI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: They know that when he calls, it's normally to bring bad news.

NADWORNY: We turn and walk down a second street.

What are we seeing here?

AZULAI: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Azulai points to the remains of a car in the middle of the street, its frame charred and blackened, the driver's door swung open. The man driving when the rocket hit in October survived, but he was badly wounded.

AZULAI: (Through interpreter) We want peace. We don't want war. We've had enough of war. But we don't have a choice right now.

NADWORNY: Israel is preparing for a full-scale war on Hezbollah, but hopes diplomacy will avert that.

AZULAI: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Azulai says he wants to live a normal life again, but that is up to Hezbollah. In the days after I visited, the town was hit by missiles multiple times. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Metula, Israel, on the border with Lebanon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.