'For a child, it’s too traumatizing to be here right now'

In the Galilee, hardy residents wonder why the government reneged on evacuating them

Abirim, under threat from Hezbollah to the north, is one of several towns on the official list for evacuation — but its residents are denied the benefits that would help them do so

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

A child's bicycle lies in the front yard of a house in Abirim Israel, pictured here on November 21, 2023, whose residents have left because of Hezbollah rockets. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
A child's bicycle lies in the front yard of a house in Abirim Israel, pictured here on November 21, 2023, whose residents have left because of Hezbollah rockets. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Standing near several Merkava tanks, the troops of an armored corps platoon watch as the No. 40 bus from Nahariya pulls up to the closed gate of Abirim, a village in the Western Galilee.

Two soldiers carrying M16 assault rifles board to inspect the passengers — both of them.

One passenger is a reservist reporting for duty. The other’s not from the area; he’s briefly detained and asked to explain what he’s come for, and to provide references from locals who can corroborate his account.

This scrutiny is one of the ways in which Abirim, a rustic community of 350 where the main industry is local tourism, has turned almost overnight into a military outpost under constant threat from Hezbollah projectiles and, potentially, terrorist infiltration from across the border with Lebanon, situated only five kilometers (three miles) away.

The government last month acknowledged that civilians should not stay in Abirim. It was added to an October 18 decree on evacuated locales — a status that usually entitles locals to state-funded housing.

Yet Abirim is among several such villages where residents have not been able to claim the benefit, forcing many to stay, and many others to live elsewhere at their own expense.

Racheli Hefer, 48, is one of about 80 people who have stayed put in Abirim, along with her daughter, Shira, and Racheli’s 75-year-old disabled mother. None of them believes they should be in Abirim, where the sounds of war, mostly outbound artillery, echo constantly in the background. But they feel they have no alternative.

Racheli Hefer, center, holds her daughter Shira as she chats with Yaniv Segal and Tami Pfeffer in Abirim, Israel on November 21, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“We’ve been abandoned. The government told us we shouldn’t be living here, and forgot all about us. It’s like no one even cares anymore,” Racheli Hefer said of her situation following October 7.

On that day, the deadliest terror attack in Israel’s history forced Israel to declare war on Hamas in Gaza, which triggered deadly exchanges of fire between Israeli troops and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.

Queried by The Times of Israel, a spokesperson for the Defense Ministry’s National Emergency Authority said that towns listed on the government’s evacuation list “don’t all need to be evacuated.”

Decisions on which ones to actually evacuate are made “based on Israel Defense Forces operational considerations and budget.” The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit referred The Times of Israel back to the Defense Ministry.

In Abirim, many of the now-deserted detached houses have wooden lodges in their backyards, which in happier times house tourists on weekend retreats.

The town even has a self-service, forest-themed café, where signs instruct patrons to pay as much as they deem fair using an app. The café is now full of soldiers.

A sign points to the entrance of a self-service cafe for visitors in Abirim, Israel on November 21, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

As the troops crack jokes over coffee, the thuds of munitions being fired into Lebanon reverberates in the background, sometimes for long minutes without interruption. Several Israelis were killed by anti-tank missiles fired by Hezbollah terrorists, and multiple rockets have landed in Israeli towns and villages.

On Monday, Hezbollah launched a new missile it calls Burkan, which has a payload of hundreds of kilograms of explosive material and a range of four miles.

It ripped through Biranit, an Israeli border post, resulting in no casualties but extensive damage that struck fear into the hearts of hundreds of at-risk Israelis.

Screen grab of video showing damage to Biranit IDF base in northern Israel after rocket fire from Lebanon, November 20, 2023 (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

As her mother recounts all this to The Times of Israel, 4-year-old Shira is reminded of a dream she had the night before.

“I dreamt there was a siren and mom and I went into the protected area and then it hit, and there were bad people but then I woke up and I saw it wasn’t real,” Shira says. She adds: “There are a lot of soldiers here. They’ll make sure nothing happens to us.”

Hefer holds back tears as her daughter recalls the dream.

“I know every day here is scarring her emotionally,” says Hefer, who is a schoolteacher. “But my alternatives are worse.”

Smoke rises during an exchange of fire between the IDF and Hezbollah on the border between Israel and Lebanon, November 18, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

The municipality to which Abirim belongs, Ma’aleh Yosef, had arranged free accommodation near Haifa for Hefer and her family because of her mother’s disability and the fact that Racheli is a single mother. But the municipality’s budget, which is dependent on donations, ran out and the Hefers had to leave.

The municipality then offered to house them temporarily in Tel Aviv — where missile warning sirens have wailed regularly whenever terrorists in Gaza targeted the city — but the Hefers preferred to return to Abirim.

“I’d rather stay than live out of a suitcase, each week in a new place,” said Hefer, whose daughter requires special education. “The changes make Shira hysterical. Here we have rockets but at least it’s familiar. It helps keep Shira calm.”

Fighters from the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, southern Lebanon, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Yaniv Segal, a 47-year-old father of two, is among the majority of Abirim residents who left, along with his two children, his ex-wife and his current partner.

“For a child, it’s too traumatizing to be here right now,” Segal said during a visit to Abirim, where he came to retrieve some clothes and equipment.

That alone, he said, should make Abirim’s residents eligible for state-sponsored evacuation, whose failure to materialize is making them “feel like we’ve been abandoned, pushed between the cracks.” As inconvenient as living in Abirim is right now is, “it’s nothing compared to what will happen here if all-out war breaks out,” Segal said.

Smoke billows from in the Upper Galilee after an exchange of fire between Israel and Hezbollah near Moshav Margaliot on Israel’s border with Lebanon on November 11, 2023. (jalaa marey / AFP)

Segal, a former officer in the Israel Defense Forces’ paratrooper brigade, expects in that scenario an incessant rain of projectiles to come down on Abirim and the other towns of the Galilee, and an army-decreed road closure around them to thwart a land incursion by the terrorists.

“When that happens, whoever is here will have to ride it out here,” he said.

Segal, a tour guide who specializes in mushroom and ecology tours, is not a particularly jittery person. News that rats have gnawed through the kitchen sink piping in his absence leaves him unfazed. He lives in a wooden, 1.5-room cabin that borders on natural woods and has no sheltered area.

He has instructed his two children, who are both still in elementary school and whose custody he shares with his ex-wife, to seek out a tall eastern wall in case of a rocket attack.

An Israeli army medical vehicle moves along a road near the northern city of Kiryat Shmona close to the border with Lebanon on October 31, 2023. (Jalaa MAREY/AFP)

Tami Pfeffer, a mother of five who has lived in Abirim since 1989, isn’t leaving.

“I didn’t leave during the Second Lebanon War, and I’m not leaving now,” she said. “I’m against leaving. [If we leave Abirim now,] we’ll end up leaving all the way to Haifa and Tel Aviv.” But she’s “furious,” she said, “that mothers with four-year-olds are being left to live here as though this is a suitable environment for them.”

Pfeffer is sharply critical of the perceived failure to evacuate places like Abirim and a handful of other towns, despite their inclusion in a government decree listing evacuated locales.

“Really it’s just thoughtlessness and neglect that we’re seeing here,” she says. “The same thoughtlessness and neglect that allowed Hamas terrorists to invade Israel and slaughter 1,200 people and abduct 240 others. So we’re still in this pattern. We still haven’t gotten our acts together.”

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