The geography of Lebanon may tell whether war is spreading

In Lebanon, a river separates areas that will define if war is spreading between Hezbollah and Israel

A man gestures as flames rise in a field near the border village of Burj Al-Mamluk in southern Lebanon's Khiam plain following Israeli bombardment on November 9, 2023.
A man gestures as flames rise in a field near the border village of Burj Al-Mamluk in southern Lebanon's Khiam plain following Israeli bombardment on November 9, 2023.

The geography of Lebanon may tell whether war is spreading

Southern Lebanon begins at the outskirts of the city of Sidon, often referred to as the "Gate of the South."

An understanding of the precise geography of this part of the country could prove vital to the region and the world. It may well be that this is the area that will define if the war in the Middle East is spreading beyond Gaza, via the breakdown in established “rules of engagement” between Hezbollah and Israel.

These rules outline the accepted norms of the ongoing skirmishes between the countries that remain from the days of war. Any return to full-blown conflict could emerge here first, outside those parameters.

The Lebanese province has a border with Israel from the north and consists of two governorates: the South and Nabatiyeh. It is divided by the Litani River, which creates what appears to be two distinct areas.

The Litani’s banks are connected by a network of bridges, with the most significant ones being Al-Qasimiyah, Tirfalsiyeh, Al-Qaqia, and Al-Khardli. The region extending toward Beirut from these from these bridges is commonly known as the North River area, after the direction in which it heads.

The area alongside the Israeli border is referred to as “South of the River”. It was here that Israel occupied land for 22 years after Operation Litani in 1978. Until Israel withdrew in 2000, the area was under semi-self-administration led by the "South Lebanon Army," composed of southerners loyal to Israel. United Nations peacekeeping forces – known as UNIFIL – were deployed there to help maintain security in cooperation with the Lebanese army.

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Three frontline sectors South of the River

The South of the River region can be divided into three sectors: the western sector, which is part of the South Governorate, and the middle and eastern sectors, which fall under the Nabatiyeh Governorate.

These areas consist of frontline villages – covered by the rules of engagement – and a temporarily secure rear. That is where Hezbollah’s military has been based since Israel's withdrawal, despite being designated as demilitarised zones according to the provisions of United Nations Security Council Resolution1701, which was issued following the 2006 war. It stipulates the cessation of military operations between Lebanon and Israel.

Israeli soldiers patrol on the top of the Mount Hermon near the border with Lebanon in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights on November 20, 2023

The middle sector is the main area of population and the military centre of gravity for Hezbollah. It contains the highest population density of Shi’ite loyalists in the border areas, facing an open plain of settlements and military installations.

This sector includes the city of Bint Jbeil and a strip of predominantly Shi’ite villages, such as Ainata, Aitaroun, Aita, Yaroun, and Maroun al-Ras. Maroun al-Ras is particularly strategic because it is situated on a high hill, overlooking a wide and deep area encompassing the settlements of the Upper Galilee. Within its range of fire lies the Avivim compound, which was constructed on the ruins of the town of Salha.

The Middle East region also encompasses a border strip of Maronite Christian villages, which maintain political and cultural distinctiveness from Shi’ite partisans. Most of these villages are aligned with the Lebanese Forces party, including Rmeish, which is the largest Maronite parish in the region, Dibal, Ain Ebel, and Al-Quzah. These villages are all located within less than three kilometres from the border and share a historical and cultural connection with Palestinian Nazareth.

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The “Good Fence”

During the period of occupation, Israel referred to this area as the "Good Fence," and it implemented a policy to engage with Christian villages in southern Lebanon. This policy extended to include Shi’ite and Sunni villages as well, with the primary objective of providing badly needed public services. This policy took various forms following the outbreak of the civil war in 1975.

During the period of occupation, Israel referred to this area as the "Good Fence," and it implemented a policy to engage with Christian villages in southern Lebanon. The eastern sector of this region holds significant strategic importance. 

The eastern sector of this region holds significant strategic importance. Its villages overlook observation points and advanced Israeli military positions. It serves as the launching point for military operations carried out by Hezbollah. Some of these villages have diverse communities, while others are predominantly inhabited by a single sect. Spanning across the area of Marjayoun and Hasbaya Districts, these villages have the highest population density along the border, in contrast to the settlement density on the Israeli side.

The frontline villages that constitute the eastern sector begin with Blida and extend northward to include Mays al-Jabal, Hula, Markba, and Adissa. They also extend southward to encompass Kafr Kila, all of which are predominantly Shi'ite villages.

Hula – infamous for an Israeli massacre during the Nakba, in which 80 people were killed – overlooks the Margaliot compound, formerly known as Honin. Adissa provides a vantage point over the settlements of Misgav Am, Kafr Gilad, and Al-Manara, and it is adjacent to the nearest Israeli army observation post.

In 2010, a confrontation known as the "War of the Tree" erupted when an Israeli bulldozer attempted to uproot a tree to install a surveillance camera, bypassing the high-technology  border fence. Lebanese army soldiers and one journalist, Assaf Burhal, were killed.

Members of Hezbollah carry the coffin of a fighter, Lebanon November 13, 2023

The Fatima Gate

The lands of Kafr Kila intersect with Israeli territory, and the security wall built by Israel stands in the middle of its main square. Kafr Kila is also renowned for the Fatima Gate, which was the former crossing point into Israel before its withdrawal. It has since become a shrine and a tourist attraction, where Palestinians from within the country were often reunited with their relatives in the Lebanese camps after years of separation.

The eastern sector transitions to the mixed town of Khiam, characterized by a Shi'ite majority and a Christian minority, with four churches present in the town. Its plain opens up towards the Metulla settlement, located at a distance of less than one kilometre, and then descends steeply towards the east in two lines.

The first line runs towards the Wazzani area, where the city of Kiryat Shmona and the kibbutzim Dan, Dafna, and Hegoshrim are situated on the right. They face the towns of Wazzani, Sarda, Al-Amrah, Ain Arab, and Al-Abbasiya, which have a Sunni majority.

Read more: Will the Gaza war push the Middle East to new realism?

Three-way border

This region is located in the Upper Galilee Triangle on the Lebanese-Israeli-Syrian border, below the Golan Heights and near to them. It extends from the Hula Plain in Israel. Israeli attacks on these villages – which date back to the late 1960s and persist to the present day – have led to the displacement of their residents over time, eventually resulting in complete evacuation. Some families of farmers and livestock herders have returned to these areas in stages, while the majority resettled in the surrounding areas of Nabatieh and Tyre.

The second line ascends towards the Arqoub area, which has been a hotly contested border zone over the years, marked by numerous events. This line includes the villages of Kafr Shuba, Shebaa, Al-Habbariyeh, and the Bastra Farm. Located in the upper part of the area, the Bastra Farm is the only unoccupied farm out of the 14 farms collectively known as Shebaa Farms.

Israelis who were evacuated from moshav Dishon near Israel's border with Lebanon, play by the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, November 20, 2023

Fatah Land

The villages in the Arqoub area played a pivotal role in receiving the initial waves of Palestinian refugees following the Nakba and became the birthplace of the earliest guerrilla operations against settler gangs. After the Cairo Agreement in 1969, these villages transformed into launching points for the operations of Palestinian organizations, forming what was referred to as "Fatah Land."

They endured the brunt of attacks and paid the ultimate price as they were seen by Israel as part of the resistance, which, at the time, was characterised by its national, patriotic, and leftist nature. These communities paid a heavy price in terms of casualties, destruction, displacement, and continue to do so.

This line connects with the Druze-dominated villages of Halta, Al-Mari, and Al-Majidiyya in Hasbaya, all located in a narrow border area with direct contact with Israel.

The western sector's borders run from the shores of the Mediterranean, beginning at the town of Naqoura, which is situated just three kilometres from Israel. Naqoura falls outside the scope of Hezbollah's military operations due to the presence of the main UNIFIL command center in the town.

The western sector exhibits a diversity of sectarian backgrounds, including Shi'ite, Sunni, and Christian communities. The border towns in this sector are predominantly Sunni, such as Al-Dhahira, Al-Bustan, Marwahin, and Yarin.

These towns face significant socio-economic challenges and are characterised by poverty –due to the state's failure – relying on agriculture and livestock grazing for a living. Without the support of UNIFIL's policies that cater to local communities and provide development projects, these towns might have become lifeless ruins, especially considering their history of enduring several Israeli attacks.

Read more: Hamas might have miscalculated in Gaza

Women mourn during the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter, Lebanon November 13, 2023

A Christian exception

There is a different situation in Alma al-Shaab, the only Christian town in this predominantly Muslim environment.

Christian parties and the church take care of its population. The western sector extends to Ramia, a small Shi'ite village with a sparse population that has nearly been deserted since the occupation. Across from the western sector lie the Israeli compound of Nahariya, Zarit, and others.

The western sector is the sole area south of the river that includes Palestinian refugee camps. The largest and most densely populated of these camps is the Rashidiya camp near Tyre, which is the closest Palestinian point to the border. Additionally, there are the Al-Bass and Burj Al-Shamali camps, along with small Palestinian communities scattered on the outskirts of banana and citrus groves.


All regions south of the river are off-limits to non-Lebanese individuals, including Arabs and foreigners of all nationalities. Entry into these areas requires a transit permit from the area command within the Lebanese army.

However, this regulation is not enforced in the western sector, as the Palestinian camps have been established on lands situated beyond the Qasimiya Bridge, which is south of the river. This arrangement has been in place since the early days of the founding of Israel in 1948.

Hezbollah takes advantage of this situation, ensuring that it does not face accusations of violating the "rules of engagement" when Palestinian armed organizations use the Al-Qalila Plain, located behind Alma Al-Shaab, as a launching site for missiles, particularly during times of conflict.

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