(photo by Ruth Marks Eglash)
Israel grapples with country’s biggest internal displacement in history
The head of Israel’s National Emergency Management Authority said a quarter of a million Israelis are displaced
EIN BOKEK, Israel – From a distance, Ein Bokek, Israel’s popular vacation spot on the shores of the Dead Sea, looks as picturesque and peaceful as ever. Yet the lowest point on earth – some 60 miles away from the deadly war now raging in Gaza – shows its own signs of war, serving for the past month as a shelter for thousands of Israelis displaced following Hamas’ brutal terror attack on Oct. 7 and Israel’s military response.
At the David Hotel, one of the larger hotels in the tourist area, some 900 members of Kibbutz Be’eri – one of the communities hardest hit by Hamas’ atrocities on Oct. 7, with around 100 people murdered and at least 30 held hostage in Gaza – mill about with an energy that belies the usual serene mood of a luxurious resort.
A month after their world was literally blown apart, there is no rest or relaxation happening among those staying at the David. In the expansive hotel lobby, a heartbreaking display of photographs of friends and loved ones, including many children, kidnapped by Hamas reminds those who arrive of the sober reality here.
Outside, beside the pool, therapists have set up a Zulu healing booth, offering the hotel’s new residents a respite from the nightmare. In the conference hall, volunteer psychologists offer more intensive therapy behind makeshift partitions, and opposite, racks of donated clothing and other goods sit ready to help the people here to rebuild their shattered lives.
“We are refugees,” Ayelet Hakim, 55, told Jewish Insider. “It’s true that we are not on the streets, but we have nowhere to go back to, everything we had was destroyed.”
“The clothes I’m wearing are not mine, everything is donations,” Hakim, whose older sister, Raz, and brother-in-law, Ohad, are among the 241 hostages, added. “Me, my husband, and my two kids live in one room – we are in limbo with no certainty about our future.”
Hakim is one of roughly 30,000 residents of the kibbutzim and moshavim who were quickly evacuated from their homes by the Israeli military after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks targeting their communities.
In the days that followed, the Israeli government formally evacuated an additional 100,000 people, starting with the 20,000 residents of the southern city of Sderot and then a further 60,000 people from the north when Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah began firing rockets and mortars from Lebanon. In addition, the government estimates that a further 100,000 people evacuated themselves from homes that sit slightly beyond what is now an active military zone.
On a visit to the north last week, JI found a ghost town in Kiryat Shmona and nearby Kibbutz Dafna, where the only people present were soldiers on alert to defend Israel’s borders from a possible Hezbollah attack and dedicated farmers who stayed behind to tend to crops and animals. Along the main thoroughfares and at the entrance to almost every community there were concrete barriers and military checkpoints.
Israel’s Tourism Ministry, which has helped facilitate the exodus of civilians from their homes, told JI that some 88,000 people are now living in hotels across the country, with an additional 87,000 being hosted on kibbutzim or in residential areas. A further 73,000 – mostly those who chose to self-evacuate – are staying with relatives and friends or in temporary accommodations.
Out of some 56,000 hotel rooms available around Israel, the ministry said, 52,723 were identified as suitable to accommodate evacuee families and so far, around 47,501 of those rooms were currently being utilized, leaving 5,222 additional guest rooms available if needed.
The vacation towns of Ein Bokek, Eilat and Tiberius are serving as a temporary home to the bulk of the internally displaced, while hotels as well as private apartments and houses in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Netanya and elsewhere are also providing shelter.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Yoram Laredo, head of Israel’s National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA), said that the number of evacuees could be close to a quarter of a million and that Israel was grappling with a new challenge: internally displaced people.
“This has never happened before in the State of Israel,” he said, describing how residents of the 20 or so communities that faced direct assaults from Hamas terrorists were evacuated immediately, with many fleeing in their pajamas and leaving everything behind as their homes burned to the ground.
“We do not see any of these people moving back home before the end of the year,” he said, adding that for some communities the return home would take much longer, if ever.
The devastation in places such as Be’eri and other kibbutzim nearby is vast. In Nir Oz, for example, few homes remain intact. The kibbutz’s famous paint factory was totally destroyed. In other places, like Be’eri, many of the communal buildings, as well as critical infrastructure, were also so badly damaged that reconstruction could take up to two years or more, slowed by Israel’s ongoing war to destroy Hamas in Gaza.
At the David Hotel, the strain of the past month and uncertainty about the future is clear.
“People here are only just starting to talk about what happened to them,” said Shachar May, press officer for IsraAid, an Israeli nonprofit that responds to emergencies all over the world and was in place to help with Israel’s internal displacement crisis just days after Hamas’ massacre.
May said approximately 16,000 displaced people were now staying in about a dozen hotels in Ein Bokek and Eilat. IsraAid, she said, has been working to set up counseling and therapy services, as well as kindergarten classes and other activities for the surviving children. In addition, she said, the NGO helped to establish an elementary school, which opened last week in the nearby Ein Gedi Field School.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which has struggled to bring order to an unprecedented and chaotic situation, has faced criticism from the survivors and families of victims over its slow response. On Thursday, nearly a month after the attack, Netanyahu and his finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, announced a series of concrete economic measures aimed at helping the evacuees and the displaced.
Michal Pinyan, whose parents, Mati and Amir Weiss, 69, were murdered by Hamas – their bodies were discovered inside Gaza two weeks after the attack – said that the kibbutz members were only just beginning to discuss their next steps and what they might do when they can no longer remain at the hotel.
“We’re dealing with this question now,” she told JI, adding that most members wanted to stay together as a community and would most likely move together to a town close to Be’eri or set up a kibbutz in a temporary location.
Be’eri, like many of the other kibbutzim located on the Gaza periphery, was founded in the 1940s, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel as part of the Jewish Agency’s “11 points in the Negev plan.” Named after Berl Katznelson, one of the intellectual founders of Labor Zionism, whose nickname was Be’eri, the kibbutz, with some 1,200 members before the Oct. 7 attack, was the largest and most successful in the area, running one of the country’s biggest printing factories. On Oct. 6, kibbutz members said, the community celebrated its 77th anniversary.
Nir Shani, whose 16-year-old son, Amit, was kidnapped and taken to Gaza by the terrorists, told JI that the majority of kibbutz members wanted to return to Be’eri, despite the horrors of what happened there.
“There are three views,” he surmised. “Most are very proud and say that the minute the army allows us to go back and live there, they will go; there are others who don’t feel safe and want to recreate the community elsewhere; and I am sure there will be a few who never want to go back.”
“I will definitely go back to Be’eri and live there until I die,” stated Hakim, who was born on the kibbutz and has lived there her entire life. “I will rebuild my life there, for me and for my family. There is no other home for me in the world.”
Hakim’s niece Yuli Ben Ami, whose parents, Raz and Ohad, were kidnapped to Gaza, said that she is suffering from severe stress and anxiety over the fate of her parents but is also painfully aware that she can’t stay at the hotel for much longer.
“This is not our home,” said the 27-year-old. “We can’t cook here. We don’t have any of our things. We don’t have anything.”
The eldest of three sisters, Ben Ami recounted how Hamas terrorists and hundreds of non-combatants who followed the terrorists into Israel during the hours-long attack rampaged through her parents’ home, stealing everything of value before setting it on fire.
“They put a bomb in the house and literally exploded our lives,” she said. “The only thing I have left is my community, the kibbutz members. They are around me, helping me all the time.”