Reporter's notebookAre there terror tunnels leading to Avdon? We don’t know

Israelis from town 2 miles from Lebanon forced to return home after running out of funds

After a hotel stay subsidized by a tapped-out Christian organization, Avdon’s 600 residents are refused state housing provided to others within the same distance from border

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

Dikla Nasimi listens to her son Eliron at their home in Avdon on June 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Dikla Nasimi listens to her son Eliron at their home in Avdon on June 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

AVDON — Without speeches or fanfare, hundreds of residents of this Western Galilee moshav have trickled back after a months-long absence from their homes, situated about 3.5 kilometers (two miles) from the border with Lebanon.

The homecoming in recent days is unusual in locales within that distance of the border, from which the government has evacuated about 61,000 people — almost the entire civilian population — due to rocket fire by Hezbollah terrorists in support of Hamas’s onslaught on southern Israel since October 8.

Despite rocket alarms and two hits Friday, the homecoming was a heartening sight for Nissim Shimoni, a 63-year-old native, who is among the dozens of locals who never left. On Saturday, he joined the soldiers guarding the main gate solely to welcome back each returning vehicle with a short chat or greeting. “No one’s driving us out of homes!” he told one returnee triumphantly.

To many returnees, however, moving back was not about defiance or ideology. It was the result of a lack of choice created by the government’s refusal or failure to include Avdon in a national evacuation plan that benefits almost all other communities with identical or similar risk exposures.

“I’d love to claim that the people returning here are doing it out of some Zionist endurance. It wouldn’t be true. In truth, we have no alternative,” said Olga Yifrah, the mayor of Avdon and a mother of three who returned here with her family several weeks ago.

In Avdon and beyond, authorities’ treatment of the community is seen as symptomatic of a government, bureaucracy, and army that are haphazardly, incompetently, and insensitively handling the aftermath of a crisis that they negligently allowed to happen.

Olga Yifrach, the mayor of Avdon, shows a reporter around one of the two facilities where elementary school students are taught in her moshav in the Galilee on June 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/The Times of Israel)

In lieu of the state-afforded housing that comes with being included in the government’s evacuation plan, in October and November, Avdon’s residents moved to a hotel in Jerusalem paid for by a Christian pro-Israel group, the Fellowship of Israel Related Ministries, or FIRM.

‘I’d love to claim that the people returning here are doing it out of some Zionist endurance. It wouldn’t be true. In truth, we have no alternative’

Seen initially as a stopgap until the government sorts out Avdon’s evacuation, FIRM’s budget for funding the stay of 55 families from Avdon ran out and the group can no longer afford to pay for their hotel rooms after July 1. In the absence of funding for their accommodation, almost all those families are moving back to Avdon.

FIRM has paid for housing also for residents of communities that are not entitled to evacuation because they are outside the 3.5-kilometer radius of the border, yet suffer much the same reality as locales within the evacuation zone. Avdon was initially deemed to be outside the range, but later recognized by the Ministry of Defense as being inside it. Yet no evacuation order came.

“I was waiting for the government to fix it. I assumed it would happen within weeks. Then months. And finally, I realized it’s just not going to happen,” said Yifrah, who recently sued the government at the High Court of Justice over Avdon’s non-inclusion.

Dikla Nasimi stands inside a bomb shelter meant to house seven families in Avdon on June 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/The Times of Israel)

Promises, promises

“I missed this place so much, it’s in my blood. I would never want to live anywhere else,” one of the returnees, Dikla Nasimi, told The Times of Israel on Friday inside her home, which overlooks the border and can be targeted by anti-tank missiles. “Living here like this is unsafe and extremely difficult,” she said, holding back tears.

Nasimi met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February. He promised her to intervene and brought her in contact with Yossi Shelley, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, she said. “They both said they’d sort it out. But I think there’s just no one in charge, or looking out for us. So we’re left here to raise children and care for our elderly parents in the crosshairs of those vampires,” she said of Hezbollah terrorists.

The communal shelter on Nasimi’s street is very deep, but is also a cramped and moldy room that shows signs of recent flooding.

“I don’t see the seven families that this place is supposed to hold staying here for over two hours. After that, people are going to take their chances with the rockets,” she said.

Replying to a Times of Israel query about Avdon, a defense ministry spokesperson wrote only that the moshav was not evacuated because “it’s not on the list” of locales the government decided to evacuate. The reply mentioned “operational considerations” without explaining why Avdon is not on the list. The Prime Minister’s Office did not reply to the query.

A Hezbollah watchtower is visible in the background of this image of a home in Avdon, taken on June 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

On Friday, rocket warning sirens caught Nasimi, a single mother who works as a lawyer, in the middle of bathing her 1.5-year-old son Eliron. Like most other houses in Avdon, the home has no in-house shelter. Residents are instructed to head toward the nearest common shelter, situated at one or both ends of each street.

“I took him to the shelter. Then the sirens stopped. Then we returned to the bath. Then the sirens happened, so we went back to the shelter, and again, and again,” Nasimi said.

Living under fire

On Friday, two rockets hit one of the lychee orchards that belong to Avdon, a largely agricultural community where the main industry after the groves is poultry. The rockets sometimes hit here before the siren goes off because Avdon is so near the border. Some residents do not bother heading to shelters, lying facedown on the ground instead because they fear explosions near them en route to the shelter.

Olga Yifrah’s youngest, aged 9, recently sent her an image that he took from their balcony of clouds of smoke billowing from an avocado grove outside their home. “Mom, there are sirens. I’m scared,” he wrote to her, while she was at work near Haifa.

Because they are not recognized as evacuees, the residents of Avdon are not entitled to unemployment benefits available to their evacuated neighbors.

An entrance to a community bomb shelter in Avdon taken on June 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The elementary schools attended by the children of Avdon, which had a population of about 600 people on October 7, are not working because they are in evacuated communities. So Avdon’s residents started their own makeshift school, operating out of two structures with shelters. One of the structures is the senior citizens’ club. The facilities are not ideal, but keeping the children in Avdon is preferable to busing them out to school, Yifrah said.

“The roads are exposed to anti-tank missiles. It’s better if the children stay put,” she explained.

Avdon’s basketball court and playground are on the moshav’s northern edge, exposed to a Hezbollah watchtower that is clearly visible and within line-of-sight of those facilities. They are rarely used for this reason since October 7. On that day, Hamas terrorists murdered some 1,200 people in Israel and abducted 251 others. This triggered an ongoing military campaign by Israel in Gaza to dismantle Hamas and retrieve the hostages still in the hands of Hamas.

Smoke billows from an orchard in the Galilee where rockets from Lebanon hit in June 2024. (Dikla Nasimi)

Hezbollah began firing rockets into Israel on October 8 in solidarity with Hamas. The rockets have killed about 30 people, including at least 10 civilians in Israel, which killed more than 300 people, most of them terrorists, in strikes inside Lebanon. The exchanges of fire have escalated in recent weeks as officials in both Israel and Lebanon warn of the prospect of all-out warfare that is likely to kill thousands on both sides.

Playing the odds

Against this background, Yifrah, the mayor, revisits the decision of a handful of families to move out of Avdon immediately after October 7.

“We thought they were overreacting when we saw them bring moving trucks. But, in retrospect, they made the right move, because they’re already settled in when we’re living here like this, and may soon need to evacuate anyway,” she said. Some families are going to leave Avdon, but most are staying, she added.

Yifrah and her husband moved to Avdon from the northern suburbs of Haifa 12 years ago because they wanted to live in a rural setting.

“I don’t regret the decision because we’ve built a life here, but I do recognize now that we went about it cluelessly. Like the rest of Israel, we didn’t understand at the time what living on the border across from Hezbollah actually meant,” she said.

To Nasimi, the single mother, it means fear.

“I’m worried about the rockets, but statistically I can live with it. The drones worry me more, but mostly it’s cross-border raids I’m scared of. I don’t want my son to end up on a poster,” she said, referencing the banners that relatives of the 116 hostages remaining in Gaza (not all of them alive) are often seen carrying at rallies.

People take cover as a siren warns of incoming rockets fired from Lebanon at the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona, June 19, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Yifrah and her husband both got gun permits after October 7. They bought special locks for their bomb shelters so they cannot be opened from the outside, like many were on October 7 in Israel’s south.

“Are there terror tunnels leading to Avdon? We don’t know. Will the army show up within 30 minutes of terrorists reaching us? And even if they do, can you imagine the carnage that can happen in 30 minutes?” she said.

Even with all that in mind, about half of Avdon’s residents will stay here, even if they are offered government-afforded accommodations, Yifrah estimated. The moshav was established in the 1950s by a handful of Sephardic families, she noted.

“They’re incredibly tight-knit and attached to the land, where they have fields and factories. The vast majority won’t move away and half wouldn’t even evacuate,” Yifrah said. “We’re only asking to be offered the option.”

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