Reporter's notebook'I can’t feel safe in Sderot without the answers'

At Dead Sea hotels, lasting mental, physical traumas delay homecoming for some evacuees

Despite challenging conditions, some displaced have rejected government incentives to return, citing lingering security concerns, while others still have no homes to go back to

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

Netanel Divker at the Royal Hotel near the Dead Sea on March 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Netanel Divker at the Royal Hotel near the Dead Sea on March 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Several attempts to return home to Sderot have convinced Netanel Divker that he’s better off staying as an evacuee at a hotel near the Dead Sea.

On October 7, the 73-year-old was on his way to synagogue for Simhat Torah services when he encountered some of the dozens of Hamas terrorists who raided the city on a murderous rampage. He managed to escape, but five months later, he is still scarred by the run-in and by the glaring shortcomings of Israel’s security apparatus exposed that day.

“When I’m in Sderot, I’m too scared to go outside so I just stay indoors all the time,” said Divker. At the Dead Sea, he said, “At least I can walk around and see friends.”

Divker, who spoke to The Times of Israel last week as he played backgammon with friends in the lobby of the Royal Hotel, is one of about 2,800 evacuees still staying at government-afforded accommodations at Dead Sea resorts.

Forgoing part of the sizeable cash grants that the government is offering those heading back to Sderot and a handful of other communities cleared out following the October 7 massacre, those staying back attest to the depth of the trauma experienced by many from the south on October 7, and the degree to which those experiences have been stubbornly imprinted on people’s psyches.

Unable or unwilling to return to communities irrevocably altered by the onslaught, they continue living out of suitcases — in safety, but far from their former homes and former lives.

“My entire worldview has changed,” said Divker, a retiree who immigrated many years ago to Israel from his native India. “I’m no longer myself. I’m trying to figure out how come I’m still alive.”

After evading the terrorists on October 7, Divker holed up in his home with his only son and grandson.

From the sheltered room, they could see and hear the terrorists taking over the nearby police station, which would become a central battle zone for much of the day and into the night as gunmen confronted security forces, who eventually razed the building.

Divker’s son’s ex-wife survived the onslaught separately on Kibbutz Be’eri, where she lives.

The sun sets on the Royal Hotel near the Dead Sea on March 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

A former career soldier, Divker is still haunted by the ease with which Gazan terrorists were able to overrun the Israel Defense Forces’ Gaza Division headquarters near Kibbutz Rei’m, which for him forms an existential quandary.

“I understand most of what happened but I can’t figure out the Gaza Division massacre,” he said. “How did they take over a fortified base? Did you serve there? Do you know? Can you explain it? I’m serious: help me understand,” he asked of this reporter.

Without answers, Divker said, “I’m in the dark. We’re all in the dark. I can’t feel safe in Sderot without the answers.”

The military has begun internal investigations into many of its failings that day, when about 3,000 Hamas terrorists invaded Israel and killed some 1,200 people and abducted 253 others. However, the probe is limited in scope and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that a full inquiry will not be launched until the end of the war that the onslaught triggered.

Aliza Avitan stands at the entrance to her home in Sderot after returning to it for the first time in nearly five months on February 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

In the meantime, though, the government has sought to bring back many of those evacuated from communities devastated by the assault and those suddenly revealed as unthinkably exposed to terrorists’ murderous aims.

Evacuees who took up the government’s repopulation grant earlier this month were eligible for about NIS 15,000 ($4,300) per adult and roughly four times that amount per household.

But the sum was halved last week and will continue to be halved again each week, down to a minimum of one-eighth of the original amount. In July, the state plans to end its accommodation solutions for evacuees.

The cash incentive has helped bring back thousands of evacuees, including to Sderot. Last week’s reopening of schools in the city of nearly 30,000 residents, situated about 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) from the Gaza Strip, facilitated the return of many families. Still, some 35 percent of the students enrolled in the city’s schools had not returned as of March 8.

As for Divker, he is in no hurry to return, either. “Do the math: For a single person, the grant means NIS 120 a day till July,” he said. “But that’s less than what I’d spend living in Sderot. Here, I get free meals, electricity, water and I don’t have to pay property tax.” Divker’s grandson and ex-daughter-in-law are at a nearby hotel and they see each other often.

Rosette Ghozlan, a 78-year-old evacuee from Sderot, listens to a friend describe his October 7 survival story in the city during their meeting on the lobby floor of a hotel near the Dead Sea on March 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

One of Divker’s backgammon partners, Rosette Ghozlan, 78, also finds it difficult to feel safe or even stay in Sderot. But hotel living and the isolation of the Dead Sea hotel zone are beginning to take a toll.

“It used to be more fun here when we had organized activities thanks to volunteers and the municipality [of Sderot] but now that’s sort of winding down,” said the mother of four. “Many of my friends are back [in Sderot] and coming out to the Dead Sea is far for my children. I think the time is nearing to return.”

No option but to stay away

Across the road from the Royal is the Noga Hotel, which is home to about 350 evacuees from Kissufim. Their kibbutz, situated about 1.8 kilometers (1 mile) from the Gaza Strip, is one of Israel’s so-called red locales – communities that are either too at risk or badly damaged to be repopulated at this time.

The destruction caused by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023, at Kibbutz Kissufim, November 20, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In Kissufim, “there’s hardly a single home that wasn’t damaged,” said Benny Hason, a Sderot-born farmer who spends three hours each day commuting between the luxury hotel at the Dead Sea and the kibbutz, which Hason joined about 40 years ago.

A dozen kibbutz members were killed at Kussufim, along with six foreign workers. The battle to retake the kibbutz destroyed many homes and much infrastructure, said Hason.

With no return imminent, kibbutz members in the coming weeks plan to move to Omer, an affluent suburb of Beersheba, where they will occupy a neighborhood of trailer homes arranged by outgoing mayor Pini Badash.

Kissufim’s members are expecting to be there for a year or more until their kibbutz is ready to be repopulated.

A flag emblazoned with the official slogan of Kibbutz Kissufim, ‘Building a future,’ flies outside the hotel where the community’s evacuated members are staying near the Dead Sea on March 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The staff at the Noga “are doing above and beyond” to make the Kissufim community feel at home, Hason said. Still, living in a kibbutz within a hotel is “complicated,” he added. “I mean, we have 40 dogs here. That’s a lot of dogs in a small hotel,” he said.

There are bigger bones to pick too.

“I can’t have my son stay over,” Hason said. Government regulations, he said, forbid non-evacuees from staying even for one night in the accommodations of the evacuees. “What parent can feel at home like that?” he added.

The Tourism Ministry, which is responsible for evacuees staying in hotels, did not immediately reply to a Times of Israel query regarding Hason’s complaint.

Meanwhile, educational frameworks are up and running for Kissufim’s members, freeing adults to return to work. (Many of the members are in high-tech and work remotely, Hason noted.) A spa in the hotel zone has been converted into a makeshift elementary and high school for children of evacuated communities, including Kissufim and Be’eri, who are staying at the nearby Leonardo Dead Sea.

Twelfth graders are living in boarding house conditions in nearby Kibbutz Ein Gedi. As for pre-school, each evacuated community has set up one for itself, typically off the hotel lobby.

The Tamar Regional Council, where the hotels are located, has also set up an after-school recreational compound for evacuee youths.

At the conference room of the Noga, which has been turned into the administrative office of Kissufim, Rob Roorda, 73, fields some telephone calls from suppliers. Roorda immigrated to Israel from the Netherlands many years ago after falling in love with a kibbutz member, his wife Lilith, while working there as a volunteer.

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

Roorda and Lilith moved to the Netherlands in 2000, and they raised their children there. The couple returned to Israel in 2016 without their children, who are grown up and “have their own lives and careers” there, Roorda said.

“It’s better this way because now the kids don’t come around to ask to borrow our car or give them money,” he joked with a straight face.

Roorda and his wife had been visiting their children abroad on October 7 when the terrorists struck. They quickly began looking for tickets, dismissing the concerns of family members in the Netherlands who wanted them to stay.

Despite returning just to live as evacuees, the thought of staying away still perplexes Roorda.

“Well, I mean,” he said, “we wanted to be home.”

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