Adiel Ginzberg walks from his home in Kibbutz Sa'ad to carry out guard duties on February 6, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Adiel Ginzberg walks from his home in Kibbutz Sa'ad to carry out guard duties on February 6, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
'On foggy days, I think of terrorists on powered gliders'

Near Gaza, apprehensive returnees trickle back home to revive deserted communities

Traumatized yet determined, thousands are now resettling towns that still echo with the sounds of war and offer limited services for residents

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

Adiel Ginzberg walks from his home in Kibbutz Sa'ad to carry out guard duties on February 6, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

A third-generation resident of Kibbutz Sa’ad, Adiel Ginzberg has no intention of being driven out by Hamas.

Along with others from the first responders squad on Sa’ad, on October 7 Ginzberg fought for hours to keep out dozens of Hamas terrorists who had sought to perpetrate the atrocities their accomplices committed in other towns and cities near the border with Gaza.

“My roots go pretty deep here so I’m staying no matter what,” Ginzberg, a dairy farmer and father of four, told The Times of Israel last week in Sa’ad, a Religious Zionist kibbutz. Ginzberg returned to Sa’ad just two weeks after it was evacuated when war broke out, and has patched up his house, which was damaged by a rocket from Gaza on October 7.

Yet even Ginzberg doesn’t want his wife and children — who are living at a hotel near the Dead Sea — to follow him back here just yet.

“I don’t feel comfortable letting my kids out of my sight here for the time being,” he explained amid the thuds of outbound artillery fire.

His predicament is shared by many parents from the region who are torn between their need to keep their children safe and a desire to return to and resettle a place they love and believe in. This dilemma is among the impediments delaying the government-led effort to resettle the so-called Gaza Envelope area, from where tens of thousands of residents are still displaced four months after their evacuation.

A cat crosses a road in Kibbutz Sa’ad on February 6, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Last month, Ginzberg asked his wife Dikla and their children to join him in their home for the weekend. It was the first time that the family was back after their evacuation. The experience made him realize that conditions were not ripe for their return, he said.

“Two of them wouldn’t go to the bathroom alone. They were too afraid that a warning siren would go off when they were in there,” said Ginzberg, whose mother and 90-year-old grandfather are among Sa’ad’s evacuated residents.

As our conversation progressed, Ginzberg, a reserves officer in the Golani infantry brigade, admitted that he, too, has new fears after October 7.

“On foggy mornings, I find myself thinking that they could land a powered hang glider right in my front yard,” he says of terrorists from Gaza, situated 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) from Sa’ad. (On October 7, several communities were invaded by terrorists on gliders.)

Dikla, Adiel’s wife, who grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, is questioning the wisdom of moving back.

“She’s asking what for? What do we need to live here for, next door to Hamas terrorists with their incendiary balloons and rockets and onslaughts that, granted, won’t happen next year, but maybe in 12 years?” Adiel said.

Revival under duress?

Such fears are widespread across the Gaza Envelope region, whose official name is now Tekuma, or “Revival,” as well as along the border with Lebanon, where repeated missile fire by terror groups, chiefly Hezbollah, that began on October 8 has forced tens of thousands to leave. On Wednesday, an Israeli woman was killed and eight others were wounded as a barrage of rockets fired from Lebanon slammed into Safed and an army base in the northern city.

Evacuated residents return to Shokeda on February 8, 2024. (Nehorai Samimi)

Of some 60,000 southerners and a similar number of northerners housed in state-arranged accommodations, only a small minority – typically older people with no children – have returned home despite a generous government resettlement grant available to returnees since January 1. Only several thousand people currently live in the evacuated Tekuma Region.

A government resolution providing state-afforded accommodations for the 50,000-odd evacuees from between four and seven kilometers (2.5-4.3 miles) from Gaza is set to expire on February 29. Multiple mayors of evacuated communities are pushing for an extension of the funding, but if it does not happen that will force many thousands of evacuees to return to places where they feel unsafe.

The Education Ministry announced on Monday that schools in Sderot will resume operations on March 3. This statement came a week after the southern city’s mayor joined his local counterparts in a protest demanding official confirmation from the government that residents who were evacuated from their homes due to the war in Gaza could safely go home. That confirmation has not yet been forthcoming.

Some communities are braving such fears out of ideological conviction. Hundreds of residents from Shokeda, a Religious Zionist moshav, returned en masse last week with fanfare – but also trepidation.

“Despite the balloons and festivities, there’s fear. We’re all aware of what’s going on and we’re afraid. But what are our options? Portugal? Uganda? Australia?” one returnee, Hana Cohen Aloro, told Kan public television in Shokeda, which is about seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from Gaza.

‘I had no customers. Just me and the dogs’

Other communities in the area are also seeing a return, albeit in a trickle rather than a flood like in Shokeda.

In Zimrat, another Religious Zionist moshav whose distance to the border is equal to Shokeda’s, about 40% of the population is back, but the reopening of the town’s elementary school Tuesday “will definitely speed things up,” Avichai Sa’adon, the owner of the town’s only grocery store, told The Times of Israel.

Amichai Sa’adon serves a customer in his grocery store in Zimrat on February 6, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

He has been open for business in Zimrat since December, he said, when the place was a ghost town and virtually all of its residents were living in hotels in Eilat. About half of the population is still there.

“I had no customers. Just me and the dogs. I opened anyway because it was good for my own mental state,” Sa’adon said.

The absence of operational education frameworks impedes resettlement, said Yishay Kreutzer, a local father who returned to Zimrat last week with his family after completing a weekslong stint of reserve duty fighting in Gaza.

The only key to feeling safe in the Tekuma Region “is returning to Gaza,” he said, reflecting a widespread sentiment in the area, especially in its religious communities.

Yishai Kreuzer holds his son in Zimrat on February 6, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Asked whether he believes Israeli society has the stamina and appetite for rebuilding Israeli settlements in Gaza, with the death toll and constant friction this entails, he argued, “There’s no choice: We’ll have to find the stamina and appetite or we will lose not only the Gaza Envelope but the whole country.”

Some other residents of the area wish to see a depopulated Gaza Strip or one where at least the border area with Israel has a wide sterile buffer zone.

Other returnees disagree with this vision. Shahar Schnorman, who is one of three people living in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, says he supports “a clear, firm border.”

“Buffer zones won’t matter because the rockets can reach us from four kilometers just as effectively as from three kilometers. It comes down to a defendable border. Buffer zones don’t mean squat and settlements only complicate defending the border,” he said.

Kfar Aza, one of the worst-hit communities, is the focus of an intensive rehabilitation plan, along with Kibbutz Be’eri, where government contractors this week began clearing some of the rubble. The resettlement of Be’eri is not scheduled to take place before 2025.

Oren Sharabi, left, her mother Nira and sister Ofir walk through their Kibbutz Be’eri on January 1, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

‘I can’t stay away, this place is my whole life’

Elsewhere in the Tekuma Region, residents are pursuing a soft return of sorts.

Uzi Dori, a lawyer, shuttles back and forth each day between the state-funded hotel in Tel Aviv where he sleeps and Kibbutz Zikim, where he works from home. Zikim is 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) from the northern edge of the Gaza Strip.

“I can’t stay away, this place is my whole life,” said Dori, a 65-year-old reserves battalion commander and father of three who used to be mayor of Netiv Ha’asara, a moshav that was one of the worst-hit communities on October 7.

On that day, some 3,000 Hamas terrorists invaded Israel and murdered some 1,200 people and abducted another 253, triggering the still-ongoing war. According to Palestinian sources, more than 28,000 Gazans have died in the fighting. Those unverified statistics make no distinction between civilians and combatants, of whom Israel says it has killed more than 10,000.

Uzi Dori speaks to journalists in the backyard of his home in Zikim on February 6, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Dori stopped short of calling on families to return, however.

“This place is currently fine for diehards like me but it’s unsuitable for raising a family,” he said of Zikim. The admission is visibly difficult for Dori, who has built a seven-room villa featuring a sunporch with a heated jacuzzi overlooking the golden dunes and the beach where they end. An estimated 19 civilians were killed on Zikim beach on October 7.

Dori offers himself and his listeners words of encouragement that he couches in quantifiable terms.

“I used to think this place was 99% heaven and 1% hell,” said Dori. “I’d say we’re at about 60% heaven right now. But we’ll get those numbers up.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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