ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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4 miles from war: In biggest homecoming yet, hundreds of evacuees return to Shokeda

As 80% of southern moshav’s 132 families come home, mayor says it’s ‘immensely joyous’ to return but ‘we know this fateful war isn’t over’

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Evacuated residents return to Shokeda on February 8, 2024. (Nehorai Samimi)
Evacuated residents return to Shokeda on February 8, 2024. (Nehorai Samimi)

Hundreds of members of Shokeda, a national-religious moshav situated six kilometers (four miles) from the border with Gaza, have returned to their homes.

The homecoming Thursday by about 80 percent of Shokeda’s 132 families was the largest single movement of people into the Tekuma Region near Gaza since its evacuation after the October 7 onslaught by Hamas and Israel’s subsequent war against the terror group.

“It was with mixed feelings,” Shokeda Mayor Efraim Luzon told The Times of Israel. “On the one hand, returning home was immensely joyous but on the other, we know this fateful war isn’t over, isn’t won yet, with everything that means for the State of Israel and the people of Israel.”

This duality was reflected in the appearance of the returning residents, who arrived from their temporary accommodations in Moshav Neve Ilan near Jerusalem holding colorful balloons but wearing black and white attire, including many clad in black sweatshirts emblazoned with “Shokedai” and “Shokedait” — Hebrew for someone from Shokeda — in white. Some of the residents set immediately about mowing their overgrown lawns.

The returnees held a tree-planting ceremony to celebrate belatedly Tu Bishvat, the Jewish day celebrating plants, which fell on January 25, and to signify their determination to grow their community.

“Despite the balloons and festivities, there’s fear. We’re all aware of what’s going on and we’re afraid. But are our options? Portugal? Uganda? Australia?” one returnee, Hana Cohen Aloro, told Kan public television. Her comments reflect a widely held view in Israel that the entire country is under threat by terrorist groups, Iran and its proxies.

Residents of Shokeda plant a tree after returning to their moshav from temporary accommodations in Neve Ilan on February 8, 2024. (Nehorai Samimi)

For many, the first order of business was to dismantle their sukkahs — the ceremonial hut they had erected in September ahead of the holiday of Sukkot, which ended on October 6.

Shokeda is among dozens of towns and moshavim that have been evacuated under a government emergency response that provides residents of those locales state-arranged housing. In January, the government began offering resettlement grants, that can reach thousands of dollars a month, to evacuated residents who wish to return. The government has said it will continue to provide housing until July at least for evacuees living within four kilometers (two-and-a-half miles) of the border.

A resident of Shokeda hugs his daughter moments after returning there from temporary accommodations in Neve Ilan on February 8, 2024. (Nehorai Samimi)

For evacuees from locales situated four to seven kilometers from the border, like Shokeda, the government may be planning to stop providing accommodations as early as next month, according to a report from earlier this week by Kan. The Tekuma Authority, a government branch responsible for rehabilitating the region, said it had not received official word about such a plan.

On the ground, the return has been slow, with only a few thousand of the 50,000 evacuees from the south coming back. Some cite a feeling of insecurity in places where they experienced war-related trauma on October 7, and where the sounds of the fighting in the Gaza Strip continue to echo.

Residents of Shokeda hug moments after returning there from temporary accommodations in Neve Ilan on February 8, 2024. (Nehorai Samimi)

Additionally, the absence of operational schools — many of which rely on faculty from outside the Tekuma Region — and other educational frameworks have been a major impediment to return. Shokeda’s kindergarten is already operational and its elementary school, situated in nearby Kfar Maimon, is slated to open Tuesday, Luzon said.

The regional high school is already operational but working temporarily from a local outside the Tekuma Region. School buses will bring the students and return them, Luzon said.

“There are Israel Defense Forces troops stationed in Shokeda and that gives a feeling of safety,” said Aryeh Azran, who owns a farm in Shokeda but is among the 20% of Shokeda residents who have not returned. “The artillery thuds aren’t as loud as they used to be when the canons were right outside Shokeda. They moved them further away and that helps but many of us are feeling afraid, especially for mothers, it’s hard to get over the anxiety,” Azran said.

Shokeda Mayor Efraim Luzon, left, delivers a speech after returning there on February 8, 2024. (Nehorai Samimi)

When it comes to employment, “it’s a checkered situation,” said Luzon, a 37-year-old lawyer and father of six. His practice in Sdeort, an evacuated city not far from Shokeda, has been out of commission since October 7. Luzon was called up for reserves duty immediately after the onslaught. He had served for 100 consecutive days fighting in Gaza (“guarding our home from around the corner,” as he put it) and is only now figuring out how much of his clientele still has work for him, he said.

“Our businesses and workplaces, some of them can be restored. Others will need to be rebuilt,” Luzon said in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. “But we wanted to come here and start doing that work now to send out a message to the nation: We’re back and it’s time to pick up where we left off.”

This picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Younis during Israeli bombardment on February 8, 2024, as fighting continues between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

In the onslaught, Hamas terrorists murdered some 1,200 people and abducted another 253. More than 100 were freed in a prisoner swap that ended in December.

Nearly 28,000 people were killed in Gaza as a result of the war, according to Hamas health authorities. The figures are unverified and do not differentiate between civilians and terrorists, of whom Israel says it has killed at least 10,000 in Gaza along with around 1,000 in Israeli territory on October 7.

In addition to about 50,000 evacuees from the south, Israel has evacuated a similar number of people from locales in the north, after Hezbollah began launching regular cross-border attacks in the wake of the October 7 attack. They remain in government-arranged housing with no specified return date.

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