ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 197

Illustrative: Evacuees from Shlomit return to their community on February 28, 2024. (Courtesy of the General Secretariat of Shlomit)
Main image: Evacuees from Shlomit return to their community on February 28, 2024. (Courtesy of the General Secretariat of Shlomit)
Construction was underway on 50 new homes when war broke out

500 evacuees stage a muted but joyous return to Shlomit, their village near Gaza

The ongoing war and the fact that Hamas still holds Israeli hostages prevent homecoming celebrations for the religious-Zionist community 6.5 kilometers from the border

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

Main image: Evacuees from Shlomit return to their community on February 28, 2024. (Courtesy of the General Secretariat of Shlomit)

No balloons or celebrations were on display as the evacuees of Shlomit returned to their beloved village, situated 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) from the border with the Gaza Strip.

The solemn character of Wednesday’s return by the village’s 500-odd residents was not for any lack of joy at being back home. Many of them have been chomping at the bit to return from the Jerusalem-area hotel where they stayed for many weeks after Hamas’s October 7 murderous onslaught on the Israeli communities near the border.

But considering that Hamas still has more than 130 Israeli hostages and that the war against the terror group is ongoing made it “better to postpone the celebrations,” as one returnee, Yitzhak Elnekaveh, told The Times of Israel.

This reserved approach reflects a mix of emotions that is widely shared among the growing number of Israelis who are returning to their evacuated communities. Their homecoming evokes joy and calm, alongside long-term concern and shock at the devastation and neglect they encounter in and around their once-thriving towns and villages.

“We’re so happy to be back. We’ve prayed for this moment for months,” said Elnekaveh, a 38-year-old lettuce farmer who has five children with his wife Lorine, who made aliyah, or immigrated to Israel, from France.

But, he added, “we’re returning with some trepidation. Some fear, concerns, and deep pain for the dead and the hostages. So we’re not celebrating.”

Oz Sasson, a member of Shlomit’s security team who was wounded fighting terrorist on October 7, and his wife return to their community on February 28, 2024. (Courtesy of the General Secretariat of Shlomit)

Four residents of Shlomit, a religious-Zionist village established in 2014, died fighting Hamas terrorists in nearby Pri Gan on October 7.

The dead, all men from Shlomit’s security team, rushed to the defense of their neighbors in Pri Gan, killing and wounding multiple invaders, who retreated. Shlomit’s four fallen left behind 15 children.

Shlomit’s four fallen left behind 15 children

On October 7, about 3,000 Hamas terrorists raided border communities, murdering some 1,200 people and abducting another 253, among other war crimes and atrocities. Of the hostages, 134 are believed to be in captivity today, as the Israel Defense Forces presses ahead with a ground offensive in Gaza that began on October 27.

More than 300 soldiers have died in the offensive and multiple Israelis were killed in rocket attacks that began on October 7 and have continued since, albeit in diminished intensity since the ground offensive began.

During the return to Shlomit, the residents marched inside, waving Israeli flags. They then attended a cornerstone laying ceremony for a new daycare center for the village’s 350-odd children.

A girl tries out her umbrella in Shlomit shortly after her evacuated family’s return to their community on February 28, 2024. (Courtesy of the General Secretariat of Shlomit)

For Kobi Revivo, a 38-year-old father of six, the first order of business back home was to enjoy the blossom of the trees – an almond and a nectarine – in his yard, he said. His wife, Bat El, is getting ready to resume her duties as Shlomit’s absorption officer – a role in which she helps new families move in as part of Shlomit’s growth plans.

The war has not impeded those plans, Elnekaveh said. Construction was underway on 50 new homes in Shlomit when the war broke out, he said, adding that none of the families that signed up to live in those homes – and have paid a hefty down payment — have pulled out. Another 150 families are on a waiting list for the following construction project once the 50 homes are populated, according to Elnekaveh.

Israel has about 120,000 evacuees, roughly evenly split between southerners and northerners, who left their homes because of rocket and missile fire by Hezbollah in solidarity with Hamas. The government recently unveiled a plan that offers considerable grants, which can reach NIS 62,000 ($17,000) per returning family.

For now, evacuees may continue to live in government-afforded accommodations. However, from March 1 and on, the resettlement grant they are entitled to will shrink.

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

At least one other evacuated community has returned wholesale to the Gaza Envelope area: Shokeda, another religious-Zionist village. Other towns, kibbutzim and moshavim have seen residents trickle in. In some of those communities, such as Zimrat, the returnees account for more than 70% of the population.

On Monday, the entire village went to the Western Wall to pray and thank God for allowing them to come home

In many of those locales, kindergartens and schools have resumed operations, providing a much-needed infrastructure for working parents. The schools in Sderot, a city of about 30,000 residents, resumed operations on February 19, hastening the return of thousands of residents. Still, the majority of Sderot’s population has not returned.

Shlomit’s residents are ideologically motivated to return, said Elnekaveh. On Monday, the entire village went to the Western Wall to pray and thank God for allowing them to come home, he said.

Yitzhak and Lorine Elnekaveh were among the village’s 18 founding families. Evacuees from Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, which were evacuated in the controversial Disengagement Plan of 2005, they moved into Shlomit when it was still a row of trailer homes on the dunes of the northern Negev desert, Yitzhak recalled.

Shlomit’s residents wave Israeli flags as they return to their evacuated community on February 28, 2024. (Courtesy of the General Secretariat of Shlomit)

The entire population of Shlomit on Wednesday drove from the Jerusalem area to their village in a long convoy comprising dozens of cars, some flying specially ordered flags emblazoned with the village’s coat of arms and two slogans: “The heroes of Shlomit are strong together” and “When the spirit builds the sand.”

The October 7 onslaught shows that “only a permanent presence, military or otherwise, in the Gaza Strip, can ensure security here,” said Elnekaveh. He added that he is encouraged by the scale of the Israeli ground offensive in Gaza. “Driving past Khan Yunis, we saw the mushroom clouds of bombings. It feels like a victory to return to our homes when theirs are destroyed,” said Elnekaveh.

‘It feels like a victory to return to our homes when theirs are destroyed’

Some 30,000 Palestinians have died in the ground offensive and accompanying airstrikes, according to unverified statistics provided by the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. The statistics do not differentiate between civilians and terrorists, of whom Israel says it has killed more than 12,000.

An evacuated resident of Shlomit holds up a flag that reads ‘The heroes of Shlomit are strong together,’ as he returns with his neighbors on February 28, 2024. (Courtesy of the General Secretariat of Shlomit)

Elnekaveh was eager to do some home cooking, he told The Times of Israel. “I’m thinking couscous and fish,” he announced.

Why the urge to cook on his first hours back home?

“Oh, if you live in a hotel for four months you’ll definitely understand,” he said. “It’s not about the food. It’s about feeling that we’re back home, finally.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed
image
Register for free
and continue reading
Registering also lets you comment on articles and helps us improve your experience. It takes just a few seconds.
Already registered? Enter your email to sign in.
Please use the following structure: example@domain.com
Or Continue with
By registering you agree to the terms and conditions. Once registered, you’ll receive our Daily Edition email for free.
Register to continue
Or Continue with
Log in to continue
Sign in or Register
Or Continue with
check your email
Check your email
We sent an email to you at .
It has a link that will sign you in.