200,000 Internal Refugees Cope With Dislocation

Adrift in their own country, around 200,000 evacuees from southern Israeli communities around Gaza and those in the north near the Lebanese border have not been home, nor felt at home, since October 7, 2023. Those who suffered the immediate shock of the southern attack and northerners who confronted escalating skirmishes endure psychological and social consequences.

Of the total who are internally displaced from the north and south, about half received orders to evacuate; the others left on their own account. In the South, communities up to 4 kilometers of the Gaza strip were the first to be evacuated by the IDF’s Search and Rescue Division following the Hamas assault, followed by communities from 4 to 7 kilometers of the border, then by the city of Sderot. Those with instructions to flee are under government responsibility; they either receive government assisted accommodation, or a stipend if they have found housing without the government’s help (200 shekels per day for each child, and 100 per day for adults). The country is working with private companies and organizations to manage the internal refugee crisis, such as two of Israel’s largest hotel chains Isrotel and Fattal. Most of the crisis response, however, has been led by volunteer organizations and companies who mobilized themselves to serve those impacted.

People receive clothes from donations at a hotel in the southern city of Eilat on October 17, 2023, which is hosting survivors from the Israeli kibbutz of Nir Oz near the Gaza border that was attacked by Palestinian militants on October 7. Israel pushed on with its evacuation of southern towns close to Gaza that were targeted in the Hamas attacks, and packed buses were taking families to hotels in Jerusalem and the Red Sea resort city Eilat. (Photo by Aris MESSINIS / AFP) (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

A Hasty Evacuation from the North

For Peter Mostovoy, a resident of Kibbutz Misgav’Am on the Lebanese border, who is now evacuated to the town of Gvat in the Jezreel Valley, the process of evacuation was a “balagan,” a mess. The day after the Hamas assault in the South, he did not know if Hezbollah would operate in tandem with Hamas, or if they had tunnels leading directly to his kibbutz. Mostovoy and his 17-year-old daughter left quickly, gathering their dogs and their food and blankets, along with some other necessities, although he forgot his medications and a medical device.

“All material things can be replaced,” he chuckled, recalling his focus on the dogs. He first thought to go to the United States, where he’s originally from, but decided against it, as there was no place in particular he could stay. He would have remained at home on the kibbutz if there were no orders for families with children to leave:  not in the Yom Kippur War or the Lebanon War or any other periods of increased violence has the kibbutz been evacuated. This was something different, something inconceivable. “How could this be?” Mostovoy mused. 

In utter denial and disbelief, and also anger and a sense of vengeance, he and his community members retreated into middle Israel. Luckily, Mostovoy works remotely. For high-school students, though, the disruption has been palpable. Many families share small hotel spaces, leaving no privacy for their adolescents, like in Mostovoy’s daughter’s case. Some students have dropped out, and many are preoccupied with the knowledge that they may be entering an army at war, seeing the experience of their older siblings and friends as their future.

Although scattered into different cities, towns, and villages, members of Kibbutz Misgav’am held a community-wide party on January 6, 2024. “The togetherness of the group is strong,” Mostovoy notes. But for Northern residents, returning home seems unlikely until Israel resolves or improves their security. When that will occur, though, nobody knows. Hezbollah continues to fire rockets into the North. Their life unmoored from home seems indefinite at this time, riding on the waves of fellow Israelis’ benevolence and charity, with no land in sight.

Evacuees in the Leonardo Tel Aviv credit: Ilim

The Gaza Area Experience

For evacuees of Israel’s southern region, the security situation was not a threat, but a reality. Experiencing unimaginable hell, many evacuees of the hardest-hit communities such as Kibbutz Be’eri, Kfar Aza, and Nir Oz do not have the option of even envisioning a return to their home as it was. In the meantime. while they recovered from the immediate shock, they began the agonizing task of mourning the savage murders of their loved ones and advocating for the release of their brutally kidnapped family members and friends.

Gili Sayag, resident of Kibbutz Kfar Aza and now evacuated to Shefayim on the central coast, remarks that she feels like her life has been paused. Currently on a hiatus from her work at the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council, she has struggled to find normalcy. On the outside it seems like the evacuees have everything they need ― shelter, food, clothes ― but not an intact community.

On October 7, Sayag woke up to red alert sirens. Taking her four-year-old grandson, she fled to their home’s safe room, joining her husband. They hunkered down for 30 hours without food or water until they were rescued on Sunday at noon. Her adult son, part of the first responder kibbutz team, had called to tell them to not go outside—terrorists would kill them all. Her home was surrounded by gunfire and explosions. When they left, they discovered that the windows in the room where she and her grandson had been sleeping were shattered by bullets. Miraculously, though, she and her immediate and extended family were unharmed.

The regional council may build temporary housing in kibbutz Ruchama, the farthest from the Gaza border in the council. Sayag affirmed that she would return to the region. When that will happen, though, nobody knows. But not for many months, even a year or more, will she go back to Kfar Aza. She needs time before she will feel that she can go to sleep in her own home. “It (Kfar Aza) looks like a graveyard; your soul can’t take it,” Sayag said, “Nothing can go back until everyone from Gaza is back.”

The Timing for Return is Unknown

Once nestled peacefully in their desert paradise, the communities along the Gazan border were abandoned by the country on October 7. Sayag says the government neglected them by failing to prevent the massacre, and also on the day when this paradise transformed into a nightmare. She says, “The government forgot that allowing even a smidgen of toleration towards an enemy that dances to the devil’s tune leads us to a hell like the one we face now.”  Peter Mostovoy agrees and predicts that within another 4 or 5 years the government will again become arrogant and careless about security.  Critical intel revealing that Hamas was planning a full-blown assault was in fact passed up the line of hierarchy in the IDF prior to October 7, but was dismissed as being “unrealistic.” Many people fear that this same attitude, which underestimates the will of Jihadism, will resurface.

On the border of Lebanon, although the IDF had time to prepare for conflict with Hezbollah following the southern massacre, the government has made the northern residents feel forgotten, too. Moshe Davidovitz, head of the Mateg Asher Regional Council in the North says that “it’s been over 100 days that people are sequestered in hotels with their kids and…[the government] isn’t speaking to us.” At this time, they live in a limbo, as they are not encouraged to return to their homes but cannot receive a resettlement grant.

While evacuees continue to cope with grief, pain, loss, shock, and a lack of trust in security, the government has requested that certain communities in in the South return this coming year. Residents of Kfar Aza and other settlements near the border are exempt given the severity of destruction and proximity to the Gaza border. However, communities located 4 to 7 kilometers from the border are expected to return starting at the end of February. It’s all about the money, Sayag asserts, saying “It costs a lot of money to house us in the hotels.”  

But the mayor of Sderot in the South, Alon Davidi, said that the city would not comply with the government decision for evacuated residents to return in early February. They will return only if residents’ terms and conditions are met.

For Sayag, her ultimate hope is to never have to go to a safe room again in her life. Whether that dream comes to fruition is uncertain, but it remains the hope of many Israelis. And this, it seems, will continue to be a mission of Israel for many years to come.

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