Reporter's notebookStark disparities found among different evacuee communities

At the Dead Sea, a cash-strapped hotel and volunteers struggle to host Sderot evacuees

Royal Dead Sea Hotel has lost 80% of its workers due to the war and its CEO says government payments barely cover room costs: ‘Who is supposed to pay the electric bill?’

  • Four Sderot men show bracelets identifying them as evacuees, after evening prayers, Royal Dead Sea Hotel, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/Times of Israel)
    Four Sderot men show bracelets identifying them as evacuees, after evening prayers, Royal Dead Sea Hotel, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/Times of Israel)
  • Entrance to the Dead Sea's David Hotel where Be’eri evacuees are being housed, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/Times of Israel)
    Entrance to the Dead Sea's David Hotel where Be’eri evacuees are being housed, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/Times of Israel)
  • An IDF orchestra performs for Sderot evacuees, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023. (IDF)
    An IDF orchestra performs for Sderot evacuees, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023. (IDF)
  • Prefab buildings to be used as school rooms for evacuee children, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023 (Education Ministry)
    Prefab buildings to be used as school rooms for evacuee children, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023 (Education Ministry)
  • From Left to Right: Volunteer nurse Shani Milgram-Levin, Barry Segal of the Vision for Israel philanthropy, and volunteer nurse David Migram-Levin, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/ Times of Israel)
    From Left to Right: Volunteer nurse Shani Milgram-Levin, Barry Segal of the Vision for Israel philanthropy, and volunteer nurse David Migram-Levin, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/ Times of Israel)
  • The Royal Hotel CEO Ruth Cohen says she has lost 80% of her employees who are either Palestinians under curfew, or Ukrainians and Argentinians who left the country when war broke out, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/Times of Israel)
    The Royal Hotel CEO Ruth Cohen says she has lost 80% of her employees who are either Palestinians under curfew, or Ukrainians and Argentinians who left the country when war broke out, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/Times of Israel)

DEAD SEA — Almost four weeks after the most barbaric and deadly single-day massacre on Israel’s soil and an ensuing war that resulted in the internal displacement of over 200,000 citizens, all seems relatively under control at the Royal Dead Sea Hotel and Spa, which is hosting about 1,200 residents of the southern city of Sderot.

At the entrance to the Royal, there is a semblance of order. Members of an IDF orchestra, who came to entertain the evacuees, disembark from a bus in their olive-green uniforms. Scouts in white shirts sit playing chess with evacuees or wander the lobby. Hotel employees scan the grounds for litter. Volunteers sporting visibility vests offer psychological support.

At the check-in desk are two signs in neat handwriting — one in Russian, one in Hebrew — detailing a daily schedule of activities. All the major health funds have signs advertising services and contact information.

Women carrying clipboards walk with purpose through the throng of people congregated in the lobby. The hotel is clean and the air conditioner keeps the interior cool in the hot Dead Sea weather.

But for Ruth Cohen, the Royal’s CEO, the situation is far from under control.

“Only today after more than three weeks did we receive money from the Sderot municipality,” said Cohen on Tuesday. “But that payment only covers the rooms.”

“Space was allocated here to open classrooms for preschool, special education and elementary school children in all the Dead Sea hotels,” she explained. “Nineteen different event spaces, meeting rooms and conference rooms are being used from the morning until midnight or even later with air conditioners running full blast. Who is supposed to pay the electric bill?”

Prefab buildings to be used as school rooms for evacuee children, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023 (Education Ministry)

Cohen added that she has lost 80 percent of her employees because they are either Palestinians under curfew or Ukrainians and Argentinians who left the country when war broke out.

Adding to the confusion and frustration for some residents of Gaza border communities is a government decision that settlements, kibbutzim, towns or cities located more than seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from Gaza’s border are not eligible for a variety of benefits, including a state-funded hotel stay. At the same time, those within four kilometers are eligible for certain advance payments.

All of Sderot is considered to be located 2.79 kilometers from the border, well within both limits, according to a chart provided online by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry.

The government has allocated an initial NIS 1 billion ($245 million) to the directorate for the rehabilitation of Gaza border communities, created in the wake of the Hamas attack and headed by former IDF Brig. Gen. Moshe Edri.

A damaged building in Kibbutz Be’eri near the border with Gaza on October 22, 2023, in the aftermath of a Palestinian terror attack on October 7. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

In the first phase of a three-phase plan, the directorate was supposed to begin directing funds to local regional councils and municipalities, including Shaar Hanegev, Sdot Negev, Eshkol and the city of Sderot.

The Finance Ministry announced on October 26 that NIS 2 million ($490,000) has already been allotted to each of the regional councils and municipalities for urgent needs. Some of the hardest-hit communities have received more.

But none of that money has made its way to the Royal Hotel.

Royal Hotel CEO Ruth Cohen says she has lost 80% of her employees who are either Palestinians under curfew, or Ukrainians and Argentinians who left the country when war broke out, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)

Government officials and volunteers say money is not the only problem. Stark disparities exist among different evacuee communities and it has to do with social cohesion, cultural capital, and connections.

These disparities are on display at the Dead Sea’s Enjoy Hotel, which is hosting Kibbutz Magen’s population of about 500 and a similar number of Sderot residents, said Yan Gal, a member of the leadership body in Hashomer Hatzair, a Labor Zionist youth movement.

“There is a gulf between the two communities; it’s no secret,” said Gal, who is responsible for coordinating the movement’s activities at the Enjoy Hotel and managing 15 full-time volunteers.

“Over the decades, the state has invested much more in the kibbutzim than in development towns like Sderot,” said Gal.

Gal said Hashomer Hatzair, which is funded by private donors and was paying a weekly hotel bill of more than NIS 10,000, was working with the two populations separately due to socioeconomic, cultural and educational differences.

Yan Gal, responsible for Hashomer Hatzair activities with evacuees from Kibbutz Magen and Sderot in Enjoy Hotel, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/The Times of Israel)

At the David Dead Sea Resort and Spa, where evacuees from Kibbutz Be’eri are housed, a picture emerges of social cohesion, good connections, and cooperation.

Though Be’eri suffered one of the most traumatic and brutal attacks among all the Gaza border communities, with a tenth of its population of 1,100 massacred or taken hostage, the kibbutz’s residents have persevered.

Shani Milgram-Levin, a certified nurse, who answered a call from the Health Ministry to volunteer to work with evacuees in the Dead Sea hotels, is familiar with the situation at both the David and the Royal.

From Left to Right: Volunteer nurse Shani Milgram-Levin, Barry Segal of the Vision for Israel philanthropy, and volunteer nurse David Migram-Levin, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/Times of Israel)

“There is no comparison,” Milgram-Levin said. “At the David everything is organized and kibbutz members are doing most of the work themselves. Everybody has the medication they need. There is a doctor on duty at the hotel. There are mental health providers on duty 24/7.

“At the Royal everything is outsourced to volunteers or government officials. There is no sense of community.”

Milgram-Levin, who worked with the population at the Royal, said that without private donors like Barry Segal’s Vision for Israel and others from the US, she would have lacked basic medical equipment and would have been unable to provide services.

Amnon and Gila Simon, Sderot evacuees, who are helping organize clothing for their fellow evacuees at the Royal Hotel, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)

Gila Simon, a Sderot resident who was evacuated to the Royal with her husband Amnon, has taken the initiative to provide clothes for her fellow evacuees, many of whom came with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

“The first time I brought clothes to the lobby there was an onslaught of desperate people,” Simon said. “Within minutes nothing was left. I learned to approach people here individually.”

The Welfare and Social Services Ministry appointed Rotem Dayan to coordinate aid for the Royal’s evacuees between her own ministry and the ministries of education, health, and the interior, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Tax Authority as well as the IDF Home Front Command and several non-government bodies, all of which are operating in the Royal.

“I feel that things are more in control since I came. We are still trying to identify all the evacuees in the hotel in order to understand their needs. But we still don’t know who is able to come to the dining room to eat and who can’t,” she said.

“Elderly people have undergone tremendous change as a result of the evacuation,” Dayan said. “They were used to a certain daily schedule. They had a health clinic near home. They had access to medicine and medical equipment. Maybe they had a neighbor or a family member who helped. Now everything has changed.”

Rotem Dayan, appointed by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry to coordinate government and volunteer activities at the Royal Hotel, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/Times of Israel)

On the top floor of the Dead Sea Mall, there is a library created for the evacuees from books donated by individuals and by the public library of Arad, a city about 40 kilometers from the Dead Sea.

Nurith Waisman, a Hebrew-language book critic who donated books and is one of the volunteers helping to organize the project, said it was a work in progress.

The library at the Dead Sea Mall, created and run by volunteers for evacuees of Gaza border communities, Dead Sea, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/Times of Israel)

“It’s incredible what’s going on here,” said Waisman. “People keep on donating books for children, teenagers and adults with so much love.”

Back at the Royal, it’s time for evening prayers, held in the tradition of Jews hailing from Muslim countries, which draw about 20 men, most of whom are elderly. They immigrated to Israel from Turkey and Morocco in the 1950s and 1960s and were settled in Sderot and other development towns in the Negev by a predominately secular, Ashkenazi Zionist leadership.

A man named David praised the government for providing the evacuees with hotels.

“There is no state in the world, not Canada, not Germany, not America, that treats its citizens so well,” he said.

Four Sderot men show bracelets identifying them as evacuees, after evening prayers, Royal Dead Sea Hotel, October 30, 2023. (Mati Wagner/Times of Israel)

Yoram, who likened the evacuation to the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, said he had everything he needed.

“There is food and drink, a quorum for prayers and people are in a good mood. People came here with nothing. But we are being taken care of. Thank God.”

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