ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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Inside story'Like a family photo where someone's been cut out'

For displaced families, Eilat’s charms are a painful reminder of a life pierced by war

For many of the 60,000 Israelis relocated to the Red Sea resort city since the October 7 massacre, sorrow and worry overlay the memories of earlier happy vacations

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

Netivot evacuees Limor Abergil, left, and her mother Shula sit on a beach in Eilat, on October 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Netivot evacuees Limor Abergil, left, and her mother Shula sit on a beach in Eilat, on October 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

EILAT — There’s a painful sense of familiarity to Shoshi Hatuel’s stay at the Club Med Hotel in Eilat with her children.

Like hundreds of thousands of Israelis, Hatuel, her husband and three children used to come here annually to spend their family vacation in this desert resort city on the shore of the Red Sea, which has a permanent population of about 50,000 and is now hosting about 60,000 evacuees.

Displaced here by the war raging near their home in Ofakim, the Hatuels are haunted by memories of their happy vacations as they mourn the murder of Shoshi’s husband, Avi, on October 7. He was gunned down outside of their home, when he walked outside to confront the terrorists who were about to enter, and who would have likely killed his wife and three children had he not distracted them.

“This used to be our fun place, our family place,” Shoshi Hatuel, 47, says quietly of Eilat as tears stream down her face. The surroundings are so familiar to her that she sometimes speaks to her children about their late father in the present tense, suggesting he give them a ride somewhere, before recalling how she watched him slowly bleed to death in their yard.

Her situation is typical of Eilat’s many traumatized evacuees, whose dire circumstances and fractured emotional state are brought into sharp relief in this laid-back city, where many of them had vacationed in what now seems like a previous lifetime.

For Hatuel, returning to Eilat without Avi is intensifying his absence, “like a family photo where one relative has been cut out,” she tells The Times of Israel. “Nobody is talking about him, nobody is writing about him and his bravery in the media. It’s like he didn’t exist,” she adds, weeping softly.

Avi Hatuel. (Courtesy of the family)

Hatuel knew that coming to Eilat would complicate the mourning process, she says, which is why she initially declined the perk her brother-in-law had arranged for the family. Shoshi wanted to stay in Beersheba, but eventually came around “because I thought it would be good for the kids,” she says.

Some 3,000 terrorists crossed into Israel from Gaza on October 7, killing some 1,400 people, mostly civilians. The terrorists perpetrated countless atrocities including the abduction of more than 200 people. In response, Israel has declared war on Hamas, launching an airstrike campaign alongside a ground incursion. Terrorists in Gaza, meanwhile, have fired thousands of rockets into Israel.

A handful of bathers use the pool of the Club Med hotel in Eilat, Israel, on October 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Hundreds of those rockets have been launched at Ofakim, but because it’s not within a seven-kilometer (4.3-mile) radius of Gaza its residents are not entitled to state-funded accommodation for the war’s duration. However, the municipality and other authorities have approved evacuation for special cases like the Hatuels and other first-degree relatives of the dozens of people that terrorists killed in Ofakim on October 7.

Like many thousands of residents of their city, Shoshi Hatuel and her three children hid for hours in a room of their apartment as terrorists roamed the streets in search of victims and rockets flew overhead. The Hatuels spent 20 hours in the room. Shoshi watched as her unconscious husband bled profusely from a gunshot wound outside. She knew he would die, but told her children only that he had been shot and was losing blood. Her youngest son, Yagel, assured the family that his father would survive as his mother said nothing and wept.

The experience has traumatized the family, who are alarmed by every large bang and thud, Hatuel says. On Tuesday, she shook for minutes after an air raid siren was triggered by a missile that was launched at Israel from Yemen and intercepted at sea, causing no injuries or damage.

A boy from Sderot plays near the tefillin stand in the lobby of the Club Med hotel in Eilat, Israel, on October 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“It brought everything back, if any of it ever went away,” she says.

The family leads a devout lifestyle. But following Avi Hatuel’s murder, Shoshi suffered a brief loss of faith, she says. “I struggled to understand why we were punished this way by having Avi, who was the perfect husband and father, taken from us. Then I realized that God sent him to save the rest of us. He was a hero.”

Hotels in Eilat have opened their doors to evacuees. For some, the stay is covered by the state. To those coming from areas affected by the fighting but who are not officially recognized as evacuees, most Eilat hotels offer a reduced rate, typically for one week. Thousands of residents of Kiryat Shmona in the north are also in town following their evacuation amid the skirmishes between Israeli forces and Hezbollah along with border with Lebanon.

A home in Kiryat Shmona is seen damaged by a rocket fired from Lebanon, October 30, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

At Abraham Eilat, a popular hostel and budget hotel, 12 families are staying free of charge at the hotel’s expense, says Omer Armoza, who runs the Eilat branch of the Abraham Travel chain of four guesthouses in Israel. After noticing some guests were hungry, the hostel, which usually serves only breakfast, began offering additional meals.

Youth movement activists and staff entertain the children of the evacuees at various hotels. The Eilat municipality and that of Sderot, a city of about 27,000 that has been evacuated, are providing mental healthcare to evacuees.

At Eilat’s disused former airport, anti-government protesters from the Brothers in Arms movement — which switched to extending aid to evacuees as soon as the fighting broke out — and other volunteers were handing out provisions, including diapers, baby formula, toys and hygiene products, to evacuees at a distribution point that looks like a department store where all the products are free.

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

Nofar Baruchi, a mother of four from Beit Hagedi, a village near Netivot, was supposed to travel to Eilat in a few weeks for vacation, as her family often does. But her community is under rocket fire and she came to Eilat without her husband because he was drafted to the reserves, like hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

“We were going to do some shopping here,” she says about Eilat, a free trade zone where many Israelis purchase appliances and clothes to avoid paying VAT. “Now I’m worried about him and our house, and instead of shopping I’m browsing for used baby clothes because I have limited access to a washing machine.”

The aid is making a difference, saving some evacuees as much as NIS 200 ($50) a day, but they are eager to get back home.

Erez and Yasmin Elmasi from Zohar walk along a promenade in Eilat, Israel, on October 31, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Erez and Yasmin Elmasi, evacuees in their 50s from Tzohar, open their cellphones to see the live feed from security cameras back home every time they get an alert about a rocket heading toward their moshav, situated about seven kilometers from Gaza. They have no shelter because they can’t afford to build one – an expense of about $50,000 – and the government won’t fund it.

“When the rockets come, we just go outside to watch them. It beats staying indoors because this way you can at least see what’s coming,” Erez Elmasi tells The Times of Israel while walking with his wife on an Eilat promenades.

A bus driver sits outside his empty vehicle in the deserted border crossing in Eilat, Israel into Egypt on October 31, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

On the beach, Limor and Shula Abergil, a mother and daughter from Netivot, try to calm Limor’s brother Shai, who is in his 40s and has Down syndrome. The family has been staying in Eilat since October 10, and even though they’re paying half rate for hotels, they are nearing the end of their financial ability to stay here.

Their apartment building in Netivot, where three people died on October 7 from a strike by one of the many rockets launched at that city, has a functional bomb shelter. But when an alarm goes off, the Abergils rarely reach the shelter before the missiles land, Limor says.

The blackened facade of an apartment building in Netivot, eight days after a rocket hit it, killing three people on October 7, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“Shai just seizes up in panic. We can’t get him to the shelter on time, which means that effectively, we live without a shelter,” explains Limor, who is also taking care of her 12-year-old daughter Shula.

Routine is key to Shai’s mental health and, in its absence, “he is drowning in uncertainty and fear. He’s not doing well,” she says. Welfare authorities have activities almost every day that he can join for one or two hours, “but he requires a framework, and we can’t give it to him right now.”

Eilat is beautiful, “and the hospitality we’ve received is truly astonishing,” Limor adds as she watches the sunset’s reflection in the placid waters of the Red Sea. “But we’re stuck here and it’s no vacation. I’d swap it in a heartbeat for our home in the projects of Netivot.”

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