Reporter's notebook'This is the war between good and evil... kill them all'

As exodus turns Sderot into a ghost town, some stay as a reminder of what’s at stake

Almost all of Sderot’s 30,000 residents have cleared out to state-funded hotel rooms elsewhere in Israel, but some 10% are standing their ground, urging the IDF to finish off Hamas

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Ayelet Shmuel, near a home hit last week by a Hamas rocket, in Sderot on October 15, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)
Ayelet Shmuel, near a home hit last week by a Hamas rocket, in Sderot on October 15, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

SDEROT — The coach buses pulling into Sderot on Sunday opened their doors to allow on some of the few remaining residents of this Israeli city on the border with Gaza and their emergency possessions, ready to ferry them to state-sponsored hotel stays away from the front lines.

Nine days earlier, another coach bus loaded up 13 Sderot residents for a day trip during the Simhat Torah holiday. It never made it out of the city, but instead was gunned down by Hamas terrorists who infiltrated into Israel during the early hours of the morning of October 7. The blood-spattered vehicle still sits idle on the street, meters away from the burned-out shell of a car that was directly hit by one of the 75 rockets that have landed in Sderot since Hamas’s onslaught.

Within days of the outbreak of hostilities, the Israel Defense Forces evacuated nearly all 13,000 residents of the 25 agricultural communities within four kilometers (2.5 miles) of the Strip, many of them devastated by massacres.

Sderot, which at its closest point is less than 2 kilometers from the Strip, has also largely emptied out.

In recent years, the city had seen an unlikely real estate boom, overcoming the constant threat of incoming rockets and growing to a population of 30,000. By Sunday morning, only a third remained within city limits, and by evening, that sank to a tenth.

Instead of receiving a compulsory and full military evacuation, Sderot, southern parts of Ashkelon, and 32 communities located between four and seven kilometers from Gaza — so close that they only have fifteen to thirty seconds to run to shelter once an air raid siren rings — have received what the military calls a “rejuvenation” incentive.

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

Brigadier General (Res.) Yoram Laredo, head of the National Emergency Management Authority, which coordinates housing those displaced by the war, said on a Sunday briefing that this second group will be funded for hotel stays in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Eilat for a week, renewable by military decision.

The government budgeted NIS 134 million ($33 million) for relocating and aiding the evacuees. For those receiving “rejuvenation,” the government has set aside another NIS 70 million ($17 million).

Israeli security forces inspect the aftermath of a direct hit from a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip into the town of Sderot, October 15, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Among those who have chosen to remain in the city, despite the Israel Defense Forces’ imminently expected Gaza ground incursion, are residents who see their continued presence as a necessary reminder of what Israel is trying to accomplish.

They are willing to suffer hardship in hopes that the prime minister, defense minister, and national security council heads’ promises to eradicate Hamas will be kept.

“We, the residents here, we don’t give up and we won’t let our government and our army stop in the middle. Even if there is pressure from the world” to reach a ceasefire, “we can’t live like that,” said Sderot Deputy Mayor Elad Kalimi.

Sderot Deputy Mayor Elad Kalimi stands outside the ruins of the city’s police station, destroyed during a battle with Hamas terrorists, October 15, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn / The Times of Israel)

Hamas, which murdered over 50 people in Sderot on October 7, “is much worse than ISIS and they have to die,” Kalimi said. “This is the war between good and evil, and we expect our government and the IDF to finish the job, to kill them all,” he added.

Likud lawmaker Danny Danon, who visited Sderot on Sunday with a small group of European and African ambassadors to Israel, made a similar point.

“Women and kids were butchered here,” he said, referencing Hamas rapes, beheadings, immolations, and other torture of victims documented across southern Israel. “We need to go into Gaza and find the Hamas terrorists and kill them.”

Shortly after his comments, an air raid siren blared. Danon and his diplomatic guests sprinted to a nearby shelter, just before they heard a rocket, missed by Iron Dome, ripping through the air.

The rocket, Sderot’s 75th direct hit in nine days, struck a home within the city.

Emerging from the shelter to the sound of IDF cross-border shelling, Ayelet Shmuel, who lives in nearby Ashkelon but works with traumatized citizens in Sderot, told the diplomats that she and her family are not evacuating to relatively safer areas of the country.

“There are a lot of people who feel like me, who say you’re not going to get me out of my home, enough is enough,” Shmuel said.

“And plus, where are we going to go? I’m going to go to Tel Aviv? They’re going to go there as well,” she said of Hamas’s rockets, which can travel as far as northern Israel.

Israeli forces walk by a burned car and a collapsed building in the southern town of Sderot, October 8, 2023, following an assault by Hamas terrorists. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Hamas’s audacious attack changed the calculus for residents, shattering the illusion of safety for those in reach of a bomb shelter or saferoom, she said.

“It used to be that if you went into your bomb shelter, you’d think you’d be okay,” Shmuel said. “But now you have to be worried about a terrorist with a machine gun. Bomb shelters are not built for that,” she said.

Many of Hamas’s victims in Israel’s smaller southern communities were killed after terrorists burst into their saferooms. Though reinforced against projectiles, the room’s doors can be pierced by bullets and lack heavy locks to keep out intruders. In some cases, terrorists set homes ablaze to smoke out those hiding inside saferooms.

Others were gunned down on the streets. Two bullet-ridden, bloodstained sedans were towed to the parking lot abutting the remains of what was Sderot’s police station. A black hair scrunchie encircled the gear shift of one, surviving the spray of broken glass accompanying the more than a dozen bullet holes puncturing the car’s frame. Blood spattered the sunroof of the other.

The police station itself was destroyed last Sunday, in order to end a day-long standoff with terrorists who took over the building.

Except for municipal employees and emergency workers, and residents departing for less dangerous pastures, Sderot’s streets were empty. Even supermarkets were closed, with the municipality stepping in door-to-door to cater to the needs of the few remaining behind, who otherwise would have no other option.

“To see with my own eyes what’s happening, so we can pass the message, there are too many people saying it’s not true,” said the Czech Republic’s incoming ambassador, Veronika Kuchynova Smigolova. “We need witnesses to say it’s true.”

Most Popular
read more: