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Residents of Tyre, Lebanon, are weary after decades of conflict on the Israeli border

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The border of Lebanon and Israel has become a battle zone again as tensions rise during the Israel-Hamas war to the south. Tens of thousands have evacuated on both sides. Flurries of rockets or artillery from the Israeli military and Hezbollah or other militias have taken lives on both sides, too. NPR's Jane Arraf talked to Lebanese bracing for more violence in a land that's scenic, historic and dangerous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Here in the ancient city of Tyre, history repeats itself in the despair of families displaced by war. Eleven thousand people have fled their villages to this district, almost 1,000 of them with no other refuge but schools.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: At one of these shelters, the Tyre Technical School, aid workers try to distract anxious children with stuffed toys and face painting. Hassan al-Sayed, a small boy who's trying to be brave, chose a lion for his face.

HASSAN AL-SAYED: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Standing next to his mother, the 10-year-old says they left because he and his sisters were terrified by the airstrikes. Fighting between the Iran-backed militia Hezbollah and Israel has intensified since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Hassan and his family have been living here for almost a month since they left their home in their fields. Hassan's father, Mustafa al-Sayed, says his family has farmed the land for 200 years. But this year...

MUSTAFA AL-SAYED: (Through interpreter) There's no harvest. It burned.

ARRAF: He says the soil and the water have been contaminated by white phosphorus. Amnesty International says the Israeli army has fired the chemical, which, by international convention, is not supposed to be used in civilian areas, into Lebanon. Israel denies it.

AL-SAYED: (Through interpreter) Even the crops we were supposed to plant in winter, wheat and barley, we have to wait until next year after the rain comes and cleans the soil. (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: He shows us the bare, empty classroom he and his children live in with another family. Mustafa is 53, and he says he's lived through three wars before this one. Up a flight of stairs, students now sharing their school with displaced families are learning car mechanics from a teacher at the blackboard.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Line of action. (Speaking Arabic). Line of action.

ARRAF: The school's chairman, Mohammad Ali Jaber, says he worries about the displaced children who had to leave school and the risk of a generation that can't read or write.

MOHAMMAD ALI JABER: And learning is everything. If you have to leave persons who are illiterated, their problems will be increased more and more. It's not a new thing here in Lebanon.

ARRAF: I ask him why there have been so many wars.

JABER: You have to ask the capitals of the world, not us.

ARRAF: In a building nearby, a stream of displaced villagers arrive to get blankets and foam mattresses. A tired-looking official, Mustafa Basma, says in the last hour, more than 40 people have come.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Among them is Hussein Abdul Hussein Hussein. He's 92 years old. He can quote chapter and verse from the decrees more than a century ago that carved up the Middle East between France and Britain. Since Israel was created in 1948, it has fought two wars and countless battles with Lebanon and powerful militias. Israel occupied South Lebanon for 18 years before it withdrew in 2000.

HUSSEIN ABDUL HUSSEIN HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) After '48, we were displaced about 20 times. Every time Israel felt like it, it would throw rockets at us, and we would pick ourselves up and leave.

ARRAF: Many older people say they are used to this, but a distressed 49-year-old mother who asks us to use just her familiar name, Um Majid, breaks down in tears as she carries two mattresses to a car.

UM MAJID: (Through interpreter) The United Nations has forced us, and the president of the United States forced us. And the spineless Arabs forced us into this. Our path is the path of resistance. We are with Gaza, even if our homes are destroyed and our children die.

ARRAF: But just a mile away is the idyllic scene of the ruins of the ancient port. Tyre was once the most important port city in the Mediterranean. All of it is listed as a World Heritage Site. Ali Badawi, who has been the site director for 20 years, says not only has the war scared tourists away. An archaeological team was pulled out by the French government.

ALI BADAWI: These areas always have a sensitive situation because now you can go, and you can see, and you can - there is some bombardment. You can hear it, and you can see it.

ARRAF: He says even if the war ends now, it will take two or three years for tourists to come back to the storied seashore.

I'm sitting on a concrete wall in front of the sparkling water of this bay in the Mediterranean. There's a man fishing in the distance near a Lebanese flag and snorkelers.

Hi.

BAHAR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: One of them gets out of the water. "Come and see," he tells us.

BAHAR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: We squeeze through a hole in a rusty gate. He shows us what looked like antique coins, Byzantine crosses and other artifacts he says he's been finding for almost 40 years.

BAHAR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: He asks us to call him by his nickname, Bahar, which means sailor. And he shows us where he was beaten in Israeli prisons when he was a Lebanese militia fighter during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. That was in 1985, and he says he spent one year and a month in Israeli detention after he was captured, before he was released in a prisoner exchange.

BAHAR: (Through interpreter) What do we need with blood? What do we need with war? But if Israel attacks us, we will defend ourselves.

ARRAF: And then, almost drowned out by the waves, the sound of explosions as Israel attacks.

BAHAR: Look.

ARRAF: Look on top of that hill, Bahar says. They're hitting us. There's smoke rising. He says they don't hear the outgoing Lebanese rockets, just the incoming ones from Israel. But it won't deter him from snorkeling every day. That's the way it is on Lebanon's coast near the Israeli border. Jane Arraf, NPR News, in Tyre, Lebanon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jane Arraf
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.