In Eilat, 10,000 evacuated residents of Sderot form a ‘city within a city’

Municipality of the rocket-battered border town continues to provide service to its 30,000 residents, a third of whom are staying in Eilat

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

Yehudit Oliel Malca, right, and Elad Kalimi animate a belated Simhat Torah celebration for Sderot residents in Eilat, southern Israel on October 31, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Yehudit Oliel Malca, right, and Elad Kalimi animate a belated Simhat Torah celebration for Sderot residents in Eilat, southern Israel on October 31, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

On a dark street in Eilat, a few dozen internally displaced Israelis ran after a convoy of pickup trucks carrying cardboard boxes, which drew up near a hotel. But the goods on offer weren’t aid supplies for desperate war victims; rather, they were shiny trinkets for children and flags celebrating, belatedly, the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah.

The convoy and the excitement they generated were part of a remarkable effort by the municipality of Sderot, one of Israel’s poorest cities, to encourage, care for and stay in touch with its residents in exile following the evacuation of Sderot and other municipalities near the Gaza Strip due to the launching of thousands of rockets from there into Israel and the Hamas assault on the border communities.

The holiday that the convoy was there to mark fell on October 7, and instead of celebrating it at municipally planned events and at synagogues, the population of Sderot was struck by the worst tragedy in its history: The murder of dozens of locals at the hands of terrorists who penetrated the city during the deadly attack that Hamas launched on Israel that day.

The onslaught, in which Hamas terrorists murdered more than 1,400 people and abducted more than 240 in Gaza, was accompanied by a barrage of rockets that killed several other people, including in Sderot; the rocket fire has continued even as the Israel Defense Forces launched a ground incursion and carried out strikes on Hamas infrastructure.

An employee of the municipality of Sderot hands out flags to evacuated residents of the city staying in Eilat, Israel on October 31, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The rockets prompted the near-total evacuation of multiple municipalities close to Gaza, including Sderot and nearly all of its population of about 30,000 people. Eilat now has about 10,000 residents from Sderot — the largest concentration of Sderot residents in exile — living in government-afforded accommodations in several of Eilat’s hotels.

They are part of about 60,000 evacuees staying in Eilat — whose own population is roughly 50,000 — from around the northern Negev region and the border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah and other terrorists are also targeting civilians.

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)

Whereas Sderot’s residents may have left the city, “the city has not left its residents,” said Sderot’s deputy mayor, Yehudit Oliel Malca, who oversaw the belated Simhat Torah celebrations for Sderot residents in Eilat last week.

The celebrations consisted of the convoy of three pickup trucks driving from hotel to hotel, with staff handing out the flags of Simhat Torah and the trinkets to Sderot residents and others who came out to dance and sing around the vehicles as they blasted cheerful music from large speakers mounted on the rear cabins. Some particularly enthusiastic revelers, like Noam Shlomo, a 47-year-old music teacher and father of three, followed the convoy around, dancing as they jogged behind it, some wearing Israeli flags around their shoulders as a cape.

Noam Shlomo celebrates Simhat Torah belatedly in Eilat, Israel on October 31, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“No one’s canceling out Simhat Torah,” a beaming Shlomo said as he regained his breath from the running and dancing. “Oh, man, I have a dilated aorta, I shouldn’t be doing this,” he mumbles. When he recovered, Shlomo elaborated on how he viewed the event and his community in exile.

“Look, I know it’s a bit contrived,” he said of the belated celebration. “But we have reasons to celebrate: Our army is finally hitting the enemy. We survived. We are together. The grief is terrible. But it also reminds you of what’s important and life. And we still have it, by God. Am Israel Hai,” he exclaimed, a slogan that means “the People of Israel live.”

Firefighters at the site of a direct hit by a rocket from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Sderot on October 15, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The belated Simhat Torah celebration last week was the first dance in weeks by Shlomo, a composer who is so obsessed with music that it inspired the names of his children, Minor, Lydian, and Aria. “I want you to publish photos of us dancing and singing so that the terrorists in Gaza see it. There’s no greater proof that our spirits are unbreakable,” Shlomo, who lost several family members and friends in the attack, implored The Times of Israel.

Like many residents of Sderot, where terrorists murdered dozens of people on October 7, Shlomo is still traumatized by that day’s events. He left with his family for Eilat on his own, before the state began evacuating the city. “When we realized terrorists were in town, I just threw some stuff in the car, took some axes and knives for protection, and drove 150 kilometers per hour [93 miles per hour] all the way to Eilat,” he recalled on the lobby floor of a hotel, where he came in to drink some water.

Residents of Sderot celebrate the holiday of Simhat Torah in Eilat, Israel on October 31, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Shlomo’s wife, Nicole, 47, works as a trauma therapist at the Sderot Resilience Center, an emotional support clinic founded in 2008 to help victims cope with the stress of living under frequent terrorist attacks, typically by the launching of rockets from Gaza. She danced with her husband outside their hotel when the convoy got there, but her joy is more ambivalent.

“Honestly, I don’t feel like dancing. But I’m forcing myself because there are children here and we need to set an example,” she said. “But my heart is grieving, I miss my community, I ache for the abducted. I’m going through the motions.”

Outside, Elad Kalimi, another deputy mayor of Sderot, animated the crowd with a song based on the Arab-language hit Dalaleh. Instead of the original lyrics, Kalimi sang “We will defeat Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen,” as the crowd shouted back “dalaleh” after each enemy was mentioned.  “Our spirit will not fall, but Hamas in Gaza will,” he declared.

A man walks past Sderot police station, which was destroyed during battles to dislodge Hamas gunmen inside, on October 8, 2023. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

The municipality of Sderot does more than strengthen morale, according to Yaron Shoshan, the municipal spokesperson. “In Eilat, we set up a city within a city,” he said. The municipality is coordinating schooling for its children at schools and community centers in Eilat. The school day begins at 2 p.m. after the locals have finished theirs, he said.

Sderot’s teachers and other government-employed personnel who left the city are on leave as they settle into the reality of being displaced. Staff from multiple government ministries, from education to welfare, have stepped in to provide services to the evacuated residents. “But municipal workers need to coordinate the effort, and we’re working around the clock,” Shoshan said.

Yehudit Oliel Malca walks behind a convoy of cars that gathered for a belated Simhat Torah celebration for Sderot residents in Eilat, Israel on October 31, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

This push is noticeable and unusual, according to Dana Bar-Nir, a youth instructor with the Hashomer Hatzair movement, who is now working in Eilat with children of evacuees at their hotels. “Unlike other municipalities with evacuees here, the municipality of Sderot is making serious efforts to regain its role for its residents and to generate activities for them specifically,” Bar-Nir, 30, told The Times of Israel. It is helping to generate a sense of community and framework among children, she added.

Dana Bar-Nir, a volunteer teacher from Kfar Saba, on a beach in Eilat, Israel on October 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Eilat’s residents are also doing their bit. The Eilat municipality has opened a distribution center at the disused airport, which is run by Angel Oppenheim, the owner of the Diver’s Village diving school. Resembling a thrift store, it offers the evacuees everything from used clothes to board games.

Angel Oppenheim stands at the entrance of the aid distribution center that she runs in Eilat, Israel for evacuees from the northern Negev on October 31, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“I’m now the diaper queen of Eilat,” Oppenheim says jokingly referencing her focus on obtaining and distributing baby products to the many families with multiple children under the age of 3, a common family makeup in Sderot and other heavily-religious towns and cities in the northern Negev. Her business has very few customers because many young men and women have been drafted into the reserves, Oppenheim said.

Nofar Baruchi from Beit Hagedi browses for used children’s clothes at a distribution center for evacuees in Eilat, Israel on October 31, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

She is a member of Building an Alternative, a left-wing feminist group that has taken a prominent role in the protest movement against the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Building an Alternative and the larger Brothers in Arms anti-government movement have diverted their funding in efforts toward relief for Israeli war victims. Brothers in Arms purchased thousands of baby formula boxes that they donated to the evacuees after slapping each box with a sticker featuring the movement’s logo.

Donations of clothing items and other artifacts have been streaming from across the country to the old terminal. Some are unexpected, including a pair of snowboarding boots, which caused Oppenheim to shake her head in disapproval. “Clearly, some people mistook the situation to be an invitation to clear out their junk from storage,” she remarked. But other items that she had deemed nearly useless proved to be in high demand.

Aerial view of the southern Israeli city of Eilat, October 21, 2015. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

“Old board games are a hit here,” she said. Haredi families that are unable to get around on Shabbat or entertain their children on weekends stock up on board games to provide recreation for their many children. “You get to know parts of Israeli society that you don’t usually come into contact with here,” said Oppenheim of Eilat, a largely secular beach holiday destination that is one of a handful of Jewish-majority Israeli cities where public transportation runs on Shabbat.

Hoteliers in Eilat are generally reimbursed by the state for the evacuees they host. But many hotels offer significantly reduced rates for residents of rocket-battered cities that are not within the 7-kilometer (4.3 miles) radius of Gaza where residents are entitled to state-afforded accommodation.

The Abraham Hostel chain of backpackers’ hotels has hosted more than 3,200 people from the south since October 7. The state has reimbursed the network for some of them, but most stayed for free, costing the network about NIS 1.8 million ($470,000), a spokesperson for the chain told The Times of Israel.

Talya Ben-Israel, a 37-year-old mother of three from Sderot, is in her fourth week in Eilat. She’s living free of charge in a hotel, where she also receives meals. But she’s not earning an income and expenses are piling up, she said. “This aid shop is a big help, and the way the Eilat people are treating us is amazing, I had tears of gratitude in my eyes for the first week.”

The “warm embrace” of the residents of Eilat is making her feel closer to them, Ben-Israel said. But, she added, it facilitates the sense of community among Sderot residents staying in Eilat, too.

“Being recognized like that, taken care of in this way, is something we Sderotniks share now, making us a close-knit community inside a close-knit community,” Ben-Israel explained. “It’s extremely comforting.”

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