The Israeli authorities said on Sunday that they would evacuate 14 more Israeli villages near the northern border with Lebanon amid escalating tit-for-tat clashes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militia, that have raised concerns that the Israel-Hamas war could ignite other regional confrontations.
Overall, more than 152,000 Israeli residents of cities, towns and villages near the borders of Gaza in the south and Lebanon in the north have evacuated their homes for safer parts of the country over the past two weeks, according to local Israeli authorities.
Haim Bibas, the chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, who provided the figure, said it was likely to be the largest internal population displacement in the country’s 75-year history.
The scale of the displacement in Israel does not compare with that in Gaza, where an estimated 700,000 Palestinians in the northern half of the crowded coastal territory are believed to have heeded warnings from the Israeli military to move south amid an ongoing aerial bombardment. The United Nations said on Sunday that 1.4 million residents of Gaza were internally displaced overall. The total population of Gaza is more than two million people, while Israel’s population is over nine million.
The Israeli military said that over the past 24 hours, it had eliminated several squads of fighters trying to close in on Israeli positions and communities along the border with Lebanon and that Israel had attacked Hezbollah assets, observation points and military compounds across the border, including one from which a ground-to-air missile was fired at an Israeli drone. The claims had not been independently verified.
The pace of attacks appeared to be intensifying. On Sunday the Israeli military said it had fired back toward Lebanese territory after fighters launched anti-tank missiles against Israeli targets in three locations and said its aerial defense system had intercepted a drone approaching Israel from Lebanon.
“We will keep responding to every attack,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesman. “Hezbollah should not come into this,” he added, echoing messages conveyed by the American and Israeli leaderships that the Lebanese organization would do best to stay out of the fray.
Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, spoke with Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, on Friday to “affirm U.S. support for the Lebanese people” and note “growing concern over rising tensions along Lebanon’s southern border,” the State Department said in a statement.
Mr. Blinken “reiterated the importance of respecting the interests of the Lebanese people, who would be affected by Lebanon being drawn into the conflict instigated by Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel.”
Israelis who survived the deadly Oct. 7 assault by Hamas, the armed group that controls Gaza, on the villages closest to the border with the coastal enclave were evacuated by the authorities in the immediate aftermath of the incursion that left more than 1,400 people dead, most of them civilians. That area of southern Israel is now considered a closed military zone as Israeli troops mass along the border with Gaza in anticipation of an expected ground invasion of the territory.
A week ago, the Israeli authorities began a state-funded evacuation of the nearby city of Sderot. Out of a population of about 30,000, only a few hundred families chose to remain in their homes. On Friday Israel set in motion the evacuation of Kiryat Shmona, its northernmost city with a population of more than 20,000. On the recommendation of local authority heads, villages and towns within two kilometers of the northern border had already mostly emptied out in the days after the Hamas incursion.
Moshe Davidovich, the head of the Mateh Asher regional council in the far north, said about 50,000 residents had already left the north by Sunday morning and only emergency and security teams remained in the villages along the border. The plan announced on Sunday for the additional 14 villages expands the evacuation zone from two kilometers to three kilometers, or 1.9 miles, from the border.
Military officials said Sunday that the voluntary evacuations protected civilian lives and gave the army more freedom in the area.
Israel’s Ministry of Defense said about 120,000 Israelis participating in the government-sponsored plan were now staying in one of the 234 guesthouses and hotels across the country. Local authority officials said that hotel rooms were still available but that they were also beginning to prepare schools and other public facilities to accommodate evacuees in case of need.