‘Evacuating was a mistake’: Israelis push to return to border homes

Ayelet Khon and Shachar Shnurman walk past the remains of a home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza in southern Israel, on 13 January 2024
Image caption,Ayelet Kohn and Shachar Shnurman are the first to return to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, which was destroyed in the Hamas attack

Ayelet Kohn and Shachar Shnurman harvested the grapefruits this month – a defiant act of normality amid the burnt-out remains of their neighbours’ homes.

The juice, sharp and vivid, is stored in plastic bottles for the weekly barbecues at their home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza. Soldiers are their only guests.

Kfar Aza – only 2km (1.2 miles) from Gaza – was one of the first places targeted by Hamas gunmen on 7 October, in co-ordinated attacks that killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel, and saw more than 240 others taken hostage.

In the days that followed, the community was evacuated to hotels and apartments in other parts of Israel.

Ayelet and Shachar are the first to move back.

“In the evening, it’s very lonely,” Ayelet says. “You used to see people walking along the road, coming in to say hello – obviously that’s not happening now.”

During the day, the kibbutz is full of visiting groups: new army recruits, potential donors, journalists, humanitarian organisations.

Kfar Aza has become a kind of museum – its burned and broken houses left frozen on the day of the attack, their entrances roped-off; debris and belongings scattered across the ground.

Journalists capture images of the destroyed house of released hostage Amit Soussana, at the Kibbutz Kfar Aza, Israel, on 29 January 2024.
Image caption,By day, Kfar Aza is filled with journalists, army recruits and aid organisations. At night, it goes quiet again

When the tour groups leave, the couple sit on their veranda, the silence broken only by the whine of Israeli army drones and the regular boom of outgoing artillery. The kibbutz dark, the houses empty.

Ayelet points to the house opposite and to another further up the road.

“Our next-door neighbour, who was a very good friend, was murdered,” she says. “It’s a constant reminder of all the others.”

So far, they are the only members of the kibbutz to move back full-time.

The shock of 7 October is still fresh for many residents here. And the ongoing war in Gaza, sparked by those attacks, is close enough that the destruction in places like Beit Hanoun is visible from the kibbutz border fence.

The challenge for the Israeli prime minister is how to restore a sense of security, as the costs of the country’s displaced communities – both political and financially – rise, month by month.

After the attacks, 200,000 people were evacuated from Israel’s border areas – both the southern border with Gaza and the northern border with Lebanon, where the Iran-backed group Hezbollah, in support of Hamas, has been exchanging fire with Israeli forces.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu built a political career on being the strongman who could defend Israel from its enemies. Empty border communities are a daily reminder of that failure to protect.

“We bought into the con,” Ayelet says. “Maybe they convinced themselves that what they were saying was the truth. But, obviously, it was a lie. And we all bought into it.”

After the war is over, she says, something will have to change.

“The way the army is [organised], the way the government does business with the Palestinians, maybe the way the world treats the whole situation – a lot will have to change.”

Mr Netanyahu has insisted that only “total victory” in Gaza, and the destruction of Hamas as an organised force, will provide security for Israel in the future. https://repositoryku.com/

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