'I expect 10-15% of us won't be returning'

6 months on, 70% of evacuees from the south are home, but thousands remain in hotels

Some 13 damaged or at-risk communities will take at least 18 months to repopulate; ‘a hotel is a good place to spend a vacation in, but a pretty dismal one to live long term’

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

Lishai Miran, the wife of hostage Omri from Kibbutz Nahal Oz, speaks at a rally by returnees to the Sderot area at Sha'ar Hanegev Junction on April 6, 2024. The sign behind her reads: "It's not Sha'ar Hanegev without them." ( Tal Kamir)
Lishai Miran, the wife of hostage Omri from Kibbutz Nahal Oz, speaks at a rally by returnees to the Sderot area at Sha'ar Hanegev Junction on April 6, 2024. The sign behind her reads: "It's not Sha'ar Hanegev without them." ( Tal Kamir)

Six months after the Hamas onslaught on southern Israel, 70% of those who departed the affected area have returned, with only a handful of locales remaining uninhabited, according to data published by the government on Sunday.

Of some 57,000 people who had been classified as evacuees from the south on February 29, at least 40,150 residents, including some 23,000 from Sderot alone, are now living in their municipalities situated within 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) of the border, the Tekuma Authority for rehabilitating the affected Gaza-adjacent area said in a statement on Sunday, the six-month anniversary of the onslaught.

In the October 7 onslaught, the worst terror attack in the history of the State of Israel, approximately 3,000 Hamas terrorists invaded the country, murdering some 1,200 people and abducting 253, largely in the communities and IDF bases closest to the border, as well as at a nearby music festival.

Amid a still-ongoing military operation against Hamas in Gaza, many view the rehabilitation of Israel’s border area as a crucial mission not only for the economy — the area is a main agricultural and industrial asset — but also as a symbol and test of Israeli society’s resilience.

“I give Israeli society a score of 110 out of 100,” Benny Hason, a chicken farmer from Kibbutz Kissufim, told The Times of Israel on Sunday. “But the State of Israel, despite getting some rehabilitation stuff done, isn’t quite there yet.”

Hason’s community of about 350 people belongs to a group of some 6,350 evacuees who are still living in state-funded hotels – the Noga Dead Sea Hotel in Kissufim’s case. They are waiting to join the approximately 2,000 evacuees who have already left hotels in favor of temporary housing in communities, such as residents of Kibbutz Nir Oz, who are living in an apartment complex in Kiryat Gat, and the population of Nahal Oz, which has been absorbed by Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek near Haifa.

Benny Hason, right, and Rob Roorda at a hotel near the Dead Sea on March 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

On Saturday, hundreds of those who have already returned to the south attended a rally — the first of its size in the area since October 7 — commemorating the six months since the onslaught and calling for the retrieval of 129 Israelis believed to be still held by Hamas. The event featured speeches by the acting head of the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, Yossi Keren, and Lishai Miran, the wife of hostage Omri Miran from Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

Approximately 60,000 people are living as evacuees, mostly in hotels, from Israel’s north, where Hezbollah has been firing thousands of rockets from Lebanon in solidarity with Hamas.

The government has set July as the deadline beyond which it will no longer provide accommodations for most evacuees from the south. Northern evacuees, however, remain evacuated indefinitely.

“A hotel is a good place to spend a vacation in, but a pretty dismal one to live long term,” said Hason, 60, who travels every day about 1.5 hours to his chicken farm in Kissufim. He is one of the few locals who regularly enter Kissufim, which is both too damaged from the fighting with Hamas to be repopulated and at risk of taking direct fire from Gaza, situated a mere 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away.

A view near on the Royal Hotel near the Dead Sea as seen on March 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Still, vegetable farmers “have returned to almost 100% activity” in Kissufim, Hason said. Farmers like him, who raise animals, have not yet returned to full activity because it requires a greater presence in Kissufim, where no civilians are allowed to stay after dark as per wartime orders by the Israel Defense Forces.

The inconvenience of living in hotels, as well as an attachment to their communities and a generous repopulation grant of about NIS 15,000 ($4,000) per adult, have prompted most evacuees from the south to return home even as Israel continues to fight in Gaza against Hamas. Even now, the terror group occasionally fires into Israeli towns near the border — including in the past few days.

But Kissufim, along with Be’eri, Kfar Aza, Netiv Ha’asara, and Nir Oz, are among 13 so-called “red locales” that were either too severely damaged in the onslaught or are deemed to be too risky to be repopulated for the time being.

Groundworks are underway in Omer, an affluent municipality near Beersheba, for a new neighborhood of temporary homes that are set to house Kissufim’s population until the kibbutz is rebuilt sometime in 2025, Hason said.

Not all are interested in returning to their former homes, he said. “I expect 10-15% of us won’t be returning,” said Hason.

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

In the meantime, “life is becoming increasingly inconvenient” at the hotel, Hason said. This is partly because of the cumulative effect of living there in relatively crowded conditions that were not intended for protracted stays by families and dozens of pet dogs.

But complications that the government has not addressed in weeks also play a role. At Noga and other hotels, evacuees are not allowed to host guests overnight, including their own children.

“It’s an insurance issue that the hotels aren’t covered for and the Tourism Ministry hasn’t resolved,” Hason said. It means that some families spend hundreds of shekels each month on accommodations for relatives who travel from afar to the remote location near the Dead Sea to spend a few days together.

The Kissufim community also has no solution for the upcoming Passover Seder, which would cost families hundreds of shekels if they want to have it at their hotel with non-evacuees, including their children and other first-degree relatives. “I’m sure if we went out with a plea, there will be no shortage of people from our wonderful Israeli society who will host us. But that’s not how it’s supposed to go: We just want to host our children for the holiday,” said Hason.

The Tourism Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment on this by The Times of Israel.

The playground at Amit Haroe Elementary School in Sderot, on March 3, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

The Tekuma Authority has spent roughly NIS 2.25 billion ($600 million) of its budget of NIS 18 billion ($4.7 billion) for rehabilitating the southern border area over the next five years, Tekuma said in a six-month update sent to reporters Sunday.

In Sderot, Tohar Uziel, a 32-year-old social worker and mother of eight, is already deep into the spring cleaning that observant Jews perform ahead of the weeklong Passover holiday, which this year begins the evening on April 22.

The Passover cleaning, which is meant to ensure the household contains absolutely no leavened bread, is relatively easy this year, said Uziel, who returned to Sderot last month.

Tohar Uziel and her daughter Roni take a pause from their stroll through Sderot on February 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

That’s because after a five-month absence, “all the food went bad, so we just threw everything out and already did a mini-Passover cleaning just after returning,” she told The Times of Israel. The loss of hundreds of shekels of food is a painful blow to many families in Sderot, where the median salary is 15% lower than the national average.

But Uziel, who said she’d “missed Sderot terribly” while living at a hotel in Eilat, is not crying over the spoiled milk.

“As soon as we returned, I was so grateful that we’re going to spend Passover here with the family and not in some hotel with neon lights,” she said.

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