List includes communities threatened by rockets Thursday

Army okays return to many communities near Gaza, including some where Hamas attacked

IDF says no security impediment to evacuees going back home to 18 communities very close to the border with the Strip, and to all others 4-7 kilometers away

Israelis load their belongings onto a bus as they evacuate from the southern Israeli town of Sderot, Oct. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Israelis load their belongings onto a bus as they evacuate from the southern Israeli town of Sderot, Oct. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The military appeared to clear the way for southern evacuees to return home after nearly five months Thursday, saying that no security issues were preventing a return to communities near the Gaza border.

The announcement Thursday by the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command declared it essentially safe to return to all communities located between four and seven kilometers (2.5-4.3 miles) from the border with Gaza, along with 18 communities even closer to the Strip, including some practically abutting the war-ravaged enclave.

The move, which may mark a significant step toward the resettlement of some of those communities within weeks, follows reports this week that the Finance Ministry had reached a deal with mayors of evacuated communities aimed at incentivizing the return of residents starting in March while continuing to foot the bill for those who wish to remain in government-afforded accommodations until July.

The communities potentially okayed for return include both those that suffered attacks on October 7, such as the city of Sderot, and those that were largely spared the widespread destruction as Hamas terrorists rampaged across southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping 253 others, many of whom remain in captivity.

The 18 communities closer than four kilometers okayed for returning are largely concentrated along the northern border of the Gaza Strip: Zikim, Karmia, Yad Mordechai, Erez, Or Haner, Ibim, Sderot, Nir Am, Gevim, Mefalsim, Sa’ad, Alumim, Reim, Magen, Nir Yitzhak, Shlomit, Naveh and Bnei Netzarim.

The region was evacuated following the attack, as rocket fire continued to rain on Israeli towns, with those closest to Gaza taking the most fire.

The rocket threat has largely, but not completely, abated as Israeli troops have rolled north to south through Gaza in a punishing ground offensive aimed at destroying the Hamas terror group.

As a reminder of the extant threat, rocket sirens sounded in Mefalsim and Nir Am Thursday.

The IDF’s position statement published Thursday still warned that there is “no complete absence of risks,” noting that there still may be rocket fire from Gaza on border towns. The government has not made an official announcement about the packages or its resettlement policy, whose current underlying regulations are set to expire on February 29.

Evacuees from Kibbutz Dan in northern Israel knit hats for soldiers at the Dan Carmel Hotel in Haifa, January 16, 2024. From left: Sima Rogany, Ruti Fried, Naomi Ftecha, and Carmella Milikah. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The incentive deal between the treasury and local mayors includes a lump sum grant of approximately NIS 15,000 ($4,000) for single-person households. Couples with one child will receive NIS38,700 ($10,000), with payments ranging up to NIS 62,000 ($17,000) for couples with four children.

Residents of all evacuated settlements who wish to remain in hotels will be able to continue to stay there until July 7. But according to one draft framework, the longer evacuees stay in hotels, the less money they will receive as a resettlement grant when they do return.

Rent aid will be lowered by 40% for evacuees who do not stay in hotels and collect assistance to stay in rented apartments or with family. Instead of the NIS 200 per day for adults and NIS 100 per child that such evacuees have received so far, starting March 1 they will receive NIS 120 and NIS 60 a day, respectively.

The grants are double existing resettlement incentives. Recipients of those earlier packages will receive the difference owed to them under the new deal, according to one source involved in the rehabilitation of the south. They spoke under condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the details of internal work plans.

Nofar Baruchi from Beit Hagedi and her children visit a distribution center for evacuees in Eilat, Israel on October 31, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Israel has about 120,000 internally displaced people, split roughly evenly between the southerners who moved because of Hamas rockets and northerners, who were evacuated due to the firing of hundreds of missiles and rockets into Israel by Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.

Neither the new package nor the army risk assessment applies to the evacuees from the north, which has seen an escalation in recent days in the exchanges of fire that began on October 8.

The evacuation from the south has cost the state more than NIS 2 billion ($550 million), with a similar sum going to cover evacuation from the north.

Multiple evacuated communities in the south have already welcomed back residents, including in Shokeda, Gevim and Zimrat. But a lack of infrastructure, including nearby schools and businesses, has impeded resettlement, along with the trauma that scarred countless residents on October 7.

Yishai Kreuzer holds his son in Zimrat on February 6, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Many residents who have returned or attempted to return to southern evacuated communities say life there is difficult, especially for children, who are alarmed by the frequent thuds, mostly from outbound artillery but occasionally also from rockets from Gaza.

In the north, several thousand people have remained in Kiryat Shmona alone – a city of 23,000 residents — despite the government’s initiation of an evacuation.

Excepted from the resettlement plan are communities that suffered the most extensive damage, such as Kibbutz Nir Oz, Nahal Oz, Be’eri and Kfar Aza, which will require months or years to rebuild. While survivors are being housed in apartments and residential complexes at least until 2025, those who do choose to return will be eligible for the resettlement grant.

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