Reporter's notebookWhen a traffic jam is cause for celebration

No longer a ghost town, Sderot welcomes returnees and a renewed sense of normalcy

Traumatized but determined, thousands have moved back to a city scarred by rocket fire and full of painful memories, where they hope to rebuild their lives

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

Aliza Avitan stands in the entrance to her home in Sderot after returning to it for the first time in nearly five months on February 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Aliza Avitan stands in the entrance to her home in Sderot after returning to it for the first time in nearly five months on February 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Aliza Avitan had just returned to her home in Sderot on Thursday when a reporter’s knock on the front yard gate triggered anxious unease.

“Are you Jewish? Say something, keep talking,” she replied from inside her apartment to a request to interview her.

Satisfied that her interlocutor wasn’t a threat, she apologized for her caution.

“Sorry, the power is out and it’s sort of all coming back to me,” said Avitan, a 62-year-old mother of five who has lived here her whole life, save the five months since October 7.

Avitan is among the thousands of Sderot residents, many of them still traumatized by the atrocities committed in their city by dozens of Hamas terrorists on October 7, who have returned home in recent days as the government pushes ahead with plans to repopulate part of the evacuated Gaza border region.

Some 90 percent of Sderot’s approximately 27,000 residents left town in the days after the October 7 massacre, in which about 3,000 invading Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people and abducted another 253, among other war crimes.

Related — ‘It’s a bit stressful’: Schools in Sderot reopen after five months of war

In Sderot, over 100 terrorists roamed, shooting people on the streets and in their homes. The police station was reduced to rubble by a fierce battle between security forces and gunmen holed up inside that lasted over a day. At least 70 people were killed, and in the days following the attack, rocket fire continued to rain down, with a number of homes suffering direct hits.

Officials at the site of the Sderot police station where the body of a Hamas terrorist was found on November 23, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

In the months since, the rocket fire has largely, but not completely, abated, as the Israeli army rolled out a major ground offensive in Gaza aimed at retrieving the hostages and toppling Hamas.

Signs of the ongoing warfare are everywhere in Sderot, ranging from facades scarred by fragments of projectiles to the gaping holes in multiple residential buildings – including in sheltered areas. In the center of town was the footprint of the razed police station, strewn with charred debris, which many see as an open wound in the city’s heart.

There were also signs of residents’ hurried exodus five months earlier. Around the city were dotted ceremonial sukkah huts, used over the Sukkot holiday. Normally they would have been taken down right after Simhat Torah, the day of the attack, but many had left without dismantling them, and had yet to return to the hardscrabble town.

More than five months after it was erected, a sukkah stands outside a residential building in Sderot on February 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

For most of the war, Sderot was a ghost town, half of its population residing in hotels in Eilat and most others spread across the country.

But over the past two weeks, thousands have returned, prompted by homesickness, the discomfort of protracted hotel living, and a government-led repopulation plan for the south, which offers returning families up to $17,000 in grants.

A traffic jam on Rambam Street, caused by a fender bender, drew approving comments from passersby who congratulated each other on the first sign of congestion after October 7

Their arrival, accompanied by hundreds of troops guarding the city, has transformed it, to the delight of those once again living there and others who never left.

A traffic jam on Rambam Street, caused by a fender bender, drew approving comments from passersby who congratulated each other on the first sign of congestion after October 7.

On the ground floors of Sderot’s many housing projects – gray and often crumbling structures hastily built in the brutalist style to accommodate immigrants in the 1970s and 80s – returning neighbors greeted each other with hugs and offers to lug luggage up the stairs. Meanwhile, shirtless teenage boys were taking advantage of a warm winter’s day to play soccer and table tennis outside.

Tohar Uziel and her daughter Roni take a pause from their stroll through Sderot on February 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“It feels so great to be back but it feels even greater that they’re all back,” said Tohar Uziel, a 32-year-old mother of eight, referring to her neighbors. She took her youngest, Roni, for a stroll through Sderot’s Canada Park, opposite city hall. In an adjacent building, dozens of soldiers were standing in a semicircle under a fortified concrete shelter around an officer who was handing out orders.

“This is a visibility job, to restore residents’ feeling of safety,” one soldier, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to give interviews, told The Times of Israel.

Across the city, the municipality put up banners welcoming the returnees. One poster reminded readers that they’re “back to eating mom’s home cooking.”

Israeli troops receive orders from an officer on February 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Other banners, sometimes positioned next to the welcome ones, vowed, “We’re not coming back until we’re safe,” which began appearing in the city in January as Mayor Alon Davidi and other leaders of Gaza border communities lobbied for increased aid for evacuees.

Uziel, a social worker who had visited Sderot often before her return this week to aid the hundreds of residents who stayed put here throughout the war, said that the arrival of other returnees had a more reassuring effect on her than the soldiers’ presence.

“I feel fine and safe walking here on my own. There are other moms in the park. It’s a long-awaited return to Sderot and normalcy,” she said.

For Uziel, the recent decision to reopen Sderot’s schools was “a crucial factor in deciding to return.”

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

It also tipped the scales for Noam and Nicole Shlomo, who had been living in a hotel in Eilat with their three children since October 13 before returning Thursday to their single-family home in one of Sderot’s newer neighborhoods.

Their youngest, Aria, “was pressing us hard to return,” said Noam, a 47-year-old musician and music teacher. He and Nicole, a social worker, timed their return for just ahead of the March 3 reopening of Aria’s high school.

Officials including Education Minister Yoav Kisch (seated left) and Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi (seated right) visit children in their classroom on the first day of school since the October 7 Hamas massacre in southern Israel, in the southern city of Sderot, March 3, 2024. (Liron Moldovan/Flash90)

Avitan described her return from a hotel in Jerusalem as a duty.

She was “happy as an evacuee, but we can’t let them drive us out of here, we’ve put heart and soul into this place, and the rockets will reach us anywhere in this country anyway,” she told The Times of Israel in the yard of her semi-detached home.

A 1970s structure, its backyard is dominated by a hulking rocket shelter that Avitan and her late husband had built a decade ago, sacrificing their beloved lemon and peach trees to make room, she noted.

Avitan, her son and another relative spent October 7 hiding inside the shelter as the sounds of the terrorists’ automatic assault rifles echoed around their neighborhood.

Aliza Avitan sits outside her home in Sderot after returning to it for the first time in nearly five months on February 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Avitan, who returned to Sderot on a bus for evacuees arranged by the municipality, said the timing of her return was designed to receive the maximum sum available in repopulation grants, which will diminish gradually with each week.

Under a new repopulation plan, the 60,000-odd evacuees from the south may remain in hotels until July 1, but those who do will lose 87% of the full grant sum.

Yoram Ben Dakon, 52, is among the residents who declined to leave Sderot. Ben Dakon, who is also eligible for the maximum grant, laments the government’s decision to evacuate Sderot in the first place.

“I don’t understand the logic. Now the residents are returning when rockets are still falling. So why did we spend billions on their hotel bills? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to use the money to make the city safer and more livable?” said Ben Dakon, who works at the local factory of the Osem food manufacturer.

Yoram Ben Dakon stands outside his apartment, which has an Israeli flag hanging on its window, in Sderot on February 29, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“We handed our enemies a massive win. They know that if they hit us hard enough, we’ll run away. What a terrible error,” he said.

Still, even Ben Dakon conceded that “listening to the rockets whistle overhead and explode all over town was a stressful experience that’s probably not for everyone.”

At the Afikei Da’at Hesder Yeshiva of Sderot on Thursday, men of all ages, and some children, arrived for afternoon prayers at a building that only a few days earlier had still served as a makeshift army garrison.

Across Sderot, situated about 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) from the border with Gaza, residents were seen dragging trash out to the street: damaged furniture from leaking roofs as a result of rocket hits, expired food and many freezers and refrigerators deemed too putrid to clean after power outages caused the contents to rot.

Noam Shlomo, the musician, threw away two refrigerators and a freezer with thousands of shekels worth of spoilt produce, he said. His once-manicured yard and pool are “in a terrible state,” he added.

“But the real damage is that I will never be the same,” said Shlomo, who knew 30 people who were murdered on October 7, including friends and a relative, Reserve Staff Sergeant Adir Shlomo, who was killed fighting terrorists.

A building in Sderot, Israel on November 23, 2023 has a gaping hole in the sheltered area of one of its apartments. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

After spending nearly a week in their shelter starting October 7, the family made a mad dash for Eilat, speeding 130 kilometers per hour (80 mph) the whole way down, with a hatchet and a large kitchen knife rattling on the dashboard — the only weapons Shlomo could find around the house. He feared terrorists would attack the family on the road.

“We will return to having fun barbecues and jam sessions and happy occasions in our home, yard, and at neighbors’,” Shlomo said. “But October 7 scarred my soul and I will carry it wherever I go, especially in Sderot, for as long as I live.”

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