'There's a range of opinions about coming back'

Government aims for nearly all southern evacuees to return by September, source says

Residents of towns 4-7 kilometers from Gaza border seen going home by March 1, says resettlement source; communities ravaged the most on Oct. 7 may take up to 2 years to resettle

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

An aerial picture shows damages to a synagogue following a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip, in Sderot on December 3, 2023. (Jack Guez / AFP)
An aerial picture shows damages to a synagogue following a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip, in Sderot on December 3, 2023. (Jack Guez / AFP)

The government is preparing to complete the resettling of nearly all of the communities it has evacuated from the Gaza border area by September, The Times of Israel has learned.

Evacuated communities whose homes are situated 4-7 kilometers (2.5-4.3 miles) from the border will begin to return in the second half of February, a source involved in planning the resettlement strategy told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to divulge unfinalized plans.

Localities situated within four kilometers of the border are scheduled to return fully only in August, except for a handful of communities that were particularly hard-hit in Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, including Nir Oz and Kfar Aza, which will take much longer — up to two years — to be rebuilt and resettled, the source said.

“We’re aiming to help some single adults to return to the four-kilometer area already in April, but families with children will probably not be asked to return before the end of August,” the source said.

Sderot, a city that accounts for about half of some 60,000 southern evacuees, will be considered in its entirety as situated less than four kilometers of the border even though parts of it are further away, the source added.

The government is already encouraging evacuees to return to towns in the 4- to 7-kilometer range. On Sunday, they became eligible for a grant of about NIS 6,000 ($1,600) per adult per month, and half of that for children, if they reside in their hometown until February 1 rather than avail themselves of state-funded accommodation elsewhere. Those who stay throughout February will receive another grant of about the same sum, with an NIS 18,000 ($5,000) ceiling per household per month.

Moshe Edri, the head of the Tekuma Authority, wearing a white shirt, attends a signing ceremony at the authority’s offices in the Sorek Region on December 24, 2023. (Courtesy of Tekuma Authority)

However, many evacuees feel they are unable to return because the area does not have functioning schools, The Marker news site reported.

Evacuees who do not wish to go home yet are eligible for government-funded housing at least until the end of February. The government intends to stop providing these accommodations at the end of February for communities within the 4- to 7-kilometer range and by September 1 for communities within the four-kilometer range, except hard-hit communities, which include Kibbutz Be’eri.

Journalists inspect what is left of one of the many torched homes in Be’eri on January 1, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Individuals who return after those respective dates will not be eligible for a grant.

The government is assuming that all of the evacuated communities will eventually return, the documents of the resettlement plans seen by The Times of Israel show. Many evacuees, including entire communities are already working on returning, and vow to do so as soon as possible.

But not all the evacuated communities are on board. There is no consensus about returning to the physical locale of Nir Oz, a kibbutz where Hamas terrorists on October 7 murdered or kidnapped about a third of the population of 400 people, the resettlement officer of that kibbutz, Maya Argov, told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

Maya Argov and Jonathan Dekel-Chen enter an apartment building in Kiryat Gat where survivors of Kibbutz Nir Oz are staying, January 3, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“There’s a range of opinions about returning,” she said in Kiryat Gat, where 80 percent of the survivors are staying temporarily in more than 130 apartments across six apartment buildings in the newly built neighborhood of Karmei Gat. The survivors moved there this week after living at a hotel in Eilat for nearly three months.

“Most of Nir Oz is ruined. Torched. The feeling of being at home, the sense of safety, after the abandonment by the army and the state, has not been restored for numerous members of the community, and there are serious discussions now about the prospect of returning,” Argov said.

One of the buildings in Kiryat Gat where survivors of Kibbutz Nir Oz are staying, pictured here on January 3, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

In addition to the evacuees from the south, the state is providing accommodation for about 50,000 evacuees from the north. The Hezbollah terror group has been targeting towns near the border with Lebanon since the war with Gaza broke out on October 7 after some 3,000 Hamas terrorists invaded Israel and murdered some 1,200 people and abducted 240 others, among other war crimes and atrocities.

The Israel Defense Forces launched a massive incursion into Gaza, in which at least 22,000 people were killed, according to unconfirmed statistics provided by Hamas-controlled authorities in Gaza. The figure is believed to include thousands of terrorists that Israel says its forces have killed, as well as civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets.

The skirmishes in Lebanon have resulted in four civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of nine IDF soldiers. Israeli troops have killed at least 147 Hezbollah fighters, according to the terrorist organization.

People inspect the site of a strike, reported by Lebanese media to be an Israeli strike targeting a Hamas office, in the southern suburb of Beirut on January 2, 2024. (AFP)

Northern communities that have been evacuated and provided with government-afforded temporary housing are not being encouraged to return home and are not eligible for a resettlement grant at this point. They are expected to remain displaced until at least the end of February, the source said.

A view of the Israeli border with Lebanon near the evacuated town of Shlomi, December 2023. (Diana Bletter)

This week, 19 villages and moshavim near the northern border whose residents are not recognized as evacuees, and are therefore not eligible for benefits, petitioned the High Court of Justice to compel the state to grant them such recognition. The petitioners argued that they fall under the evacuation order for locales within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) that have been applied to many of their neighboring villages.

The National Emergency Authority has said that evacuations in the north are decided upon by the Defense Ministry, which has declined — citing “operational considerations” — to say why it has excluded those 19 localities from the list of evacuated ones.

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