Reporter's notebook'I can't believe I used to feel safe here'

Pause in war gives traumatized Israelis a chance to visit home – or what’s left of it

Temporary Israel-Hamas ceasefire allows residents of Sderot and nearby kibbutzim to briefly return, stock up on gear… and begin to internalize what’s happened

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

Kibbutz Be'eri residents and visitors on November 27, 2023 inaugurate a Torah scroll in the kibbutz in memory of Amit Man, among those murdered by terrorists on October 7, 2023. (Courtesy of Amit Man's family)
Kibbutz Be'eri residents and visitors on November 27, 2023 inaugurate a Torah scroll in the kibbutz in memory of Amit Man, among those murdered by terrorists on October 7, 2023. (Courtesy of Amit Man's family)

Holding one hand over his mouth in horror and disbelief, Itiel Mateh examined a gaping hole that a rocket had made in the façade of the residential building where he lives with his family in Sderot.

At 17, Mateh is familiar with damage caused by rockets fired by terror groups in Gaza. Mateh’s shock when he returned to the building last week for the first time since October 8 was over the fact that the rocket that hit his building earlier this month penetrated the sheltered area, an in-house bunker that nearly all buildings have here, and that Mateh had previously deemed safe.

“Wow. This is going to be difficult to forget the next time the siren goes off,” said Mateh, a yeshiva student who immigrated to Israel from India in 2010 with his four siblings and parents, all members of the Bnei Menashe community in the subcontinent’s northeast.

No one was hurt in the explosion, which happened after the building — and indeed the whole city — had been evacuated. But it blew out all the windows in Mateh’s home, where two walls were so severely cracked that the family fears the ceiling will collapse.

In the current fighting — which began when 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists burst through the border, under the cover of immense rocket fire, and killed 1,200 people across southern Israel — a rocket killed at least one person in Sderot and three others in Netivot. Mateh, who is staying with his family in Jerusalem, is one of hundreds of Israelis who have been using the current temporary ceasefire to return briefly to their homes, or what’s left of them.

Most have come to stock up on clothes and gear before heading back to the safety of state-afforded accommodations. Some are devastated by what they see; others see their resolve to return increase.

A building in Sderot on November 23, 2023, has a gaping hole in the sheltered area of one of its apartments. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The rocket that shocked Mateh shot clean through the fortified concrete. It made quick work of the wall’s internal steel wiring, exploding inside the supposedly safe space. Another rocket hit an adjacent building, hitting the steel cap of the shelter’s ventilation inlet. That rocket didn’t penetrate but would still likely have killed anyone inside. “I can’t believe I used to feel safe here,” Mateh says.

Ghost towns

Like much of the western Negev area near Gaza, Sderot is a ghost town following the evacuation of most of its 27,000 residents.

Many of the city’s yards and balconies still have their sukkahs standing — ritual huts erected for the holiday that ended right before the war started on October 7, when Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people in Israel and abducted another 240.

Sukkot are on display on the balconies of a residential building in Sderot on November 23, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The smell of rotten food from fridges and uncollected trash wafts through the streets of Sderot, where cats appear to have taken the place of humans.

On the ruins of Sderot’s police station, a surrealistic scene was on display on November 23.

A group of rabbis was using a banged-up printer hooked up to a sputtering generator atop the rubble. Rabbi Moshe Zeev Pizam, an envoy for the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, was printing the Tanya, or Likutei Amarim, because that piece of scripture “brings light to a dark place,” he said.

Rabbi Moshe Zeev Pizam near the demolished Sderot police station, November 23, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Terrorists murdered all the police officers at the station and captured it. Israeli security forces torched the building to smoke out the hostiles.

On the day this reporter visited, one of the terrorist’s bodies, in an advanced state of decay, was discovered in a ditch under the rubble. As the rabbis printed the Tanya, sappers extracted the body carefully, for fear of boobytraps.

Officials at the site of the Sderot police station where the body of a Hamas terrorist was found on November 23, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Back in the residential buildings, Daniel Amar was taking care of several cats in the yard of his semi-detached home, situated just behind the project buildings where the Matehs live. He returned after a long absence but his relatives are still living in Jerusalem. He climbed up on the roof to examine the damage: shrapnel pierced the sealant and destroyed the air conditioner engines and solar panels.

Slightly inebriated, he became overcome with anger and grief and broke down in tears on the roof. “When will we stop lying to ourselves? We can’t live with them here. We’ll never live in peace if they’re here,” he said about the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Busted solar panels and sealant sheets, pictured here on November 23, 2023 are among the damaged items on Daniel Amar’s roof in Sderot. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Burned, blackened houses, but a reopened dining hall

There is also movement in the kibbutzim and moshavim around Sderot.

In Be’eri, a kibbutz that has emerged as a symbol of Hamas’s barbarism and is situated 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of Sderot, Yasmin Ra’anan is once again hearing the distinct chirps of hummingbirds, she said. For weeks after the firefights of October 7 here, the iridescent birds had stayed away from the nectar-rich flowers that adorn this green, manicured oasis.

Yasmin Ra’anan hugs a fellow kibbutz member in Be’eri, on November 19, 2023. (Yasmin Ra’anan)

“The peacocks that dispersed all over are finally back at the petting zoo, and there are butterflies everywhere here,” says Ra’anan, who used the pause in the war to take care of whatever animals survived in the petting zoo, which is her responsibility in the kibbutz. Like most of Be’eri’s survivors, she’s staying at a hotel near the Dead Sea.

The kibbutz is a “depressing sight,” she told The Times of Israel. “The blackened houses, the blown-up ones. The ZAKA graffiti,” she said, referencing the numbers and figures left by the emergency group on houses, with information on the dead found inside. About 100 terrorists killed over 80 people in Be’eri, the largest of the kibbutzim of Eshkol Regional Council.

The house where the remains of 12-year-old Liel Hetzroni were found in Kibbutz Be’eri, near the Israeli-Gaza border, southern Israel, November 19, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

But there are also uplifting scenes in Be’eri. The dining hall — a pillar of social activity – is operational again, albeit with meals that are bought rather than cooked there because the kitchen is not yet ready.

The diners are mostly from Be’eri Print, one of Israel’s best-known printing factories. The kibbutzniks who work there travel daily for 90 minutes each way to and from the Dead Sea.

Be’eri, where only members and security forces are allowed to enter for now, on Monday saw its first party since October 7: a celebration around the dedication of a new Torah scroll at the kibbutz’s synagogue. Gifted by a private donor, it is in memory of Amit Man, a paramedic whom terrorists killed with her patients at the kibbutz clinic.

This week, farmers in Be’eri and Nir Oz used the lull in the fighting to sow several wheat fields. They hope their fields will be safe to harvest in a few months’ time.

Illustrative: Scenes of houses destroyed when Hamas terrorists infiltrated Kibbutz Be’eri, and 30 other nearby communities in Southern Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people, seen on October 25, 2023. (Edi Israel/Flash90)

Enough of waiting

Some of the moshavim that have been evacuated because of the war are done waiting for calm to be restored. One moshav, which this article will not name for security reasons, is returning en masse this week, one of its residents said.

For some of those who return, the experience can be jarring in unexpected ways.

The destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near the Israel-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 20, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amir Adler, a 47-year-old banana grower from Nahal Oz, used his brief return to repair a busted irrigation pipe to also visit the home where he and his family hid as terrorists tried to break in. The terrorists discharged a weapon at the lock of the sheltered room where Adler, his wife and three children were holed up. But that jammed the lock even tighter in place, thwarting the terrorists’ attempt to enter. Under fire from snipers and Maglan special forces, the terrorists retreated.

Daniel Tragerman, killed by a mortar shell fired from Gaza into a kibbutz in the Sha’ar Hanegev regional council on August 22, 2014 (photo credit: courtesy)

“Maybe because the sheltered room kept us safe, being inside the house felt safer than being outside,” Adler, 47, said.

Amir Adler shows off bananas in his plantation in Nahal Oz, Israel. (Courtesy)

Locals here have good reason to distrust Hamas ceasefires. During one of them in 2014, terrorists fired into Nahal Oz a projectile that killed a toddler, Daniel Tragerman. Hamas also violated this week’s truce at least once on Tuesday.

IDF troops who had stayed in Adler’s house – it’s one of the nearest to Gaza, situated a mere 1.6 kilometers, or one mile, away – left it cleaner and tidier than they’d found it, adding to the “eerie quiet” of the place, Adler said.

Nadav Peretz speaks to journalists in Mishmar Haemek on November 26, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Adler wants to return to Nahal Oz as soon as possible, as do thousands of evacuees from the area. But his kibbutz will see more than merely a return, according to Nahal Oz’s growth officer, Nadav Peretz.

“It will double its population by 2028,” Peretz, 43, told The Times of Israel on Sunday in the kibbutz near Afula where Nahal Oz’s survivors are staying.

“In the beginning, I thought the attack would end it all,” he said, referencing a peak in admissions that occurred just before October. “But we’re seeing so much interest now, that I’m telling you this with confidence: We’re heading toward a 100% increase.”

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