All But Five of the Israeli Communities on the Gaza Border to Remain Empty for Now

Eight communities are in need of long-term rebuilding; three others have not been cleared because of the security situation and residents of seven more have been told to return home next month – but have no intention of doing so. “The community cannot return to a place it feels less safe than on October 6.” A Shomrim investigation also published on Mako

Eight communities are in need of long-term rebuilding; three others have not been cleared because of the security situation and residents of seven more have been told to return home next month – but have no intention of doing so. “The community cannot return to a place it feels less safe than on October 6.” A Shomrim investigation also published on Mako

Eight communities are in need of long-term rebuilding; three others have not been cleared because of the security situation and residents of seven more have been told to return home next month – but have no intention of doing so. “The community cannot return to a place it feels less safe than on October 6.” A Shomrim investigation also published on Mako

The Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak home of Fernando Marman and Luis Har, who were rescued from Hamas captivity by the IDF in February. Photo: Reuters

Shuki Sadeh

in collaboration with

June 6, 2024


Last week, a post on the Facebook page of Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak broke through, for a few precious moments, the veneer of indifference that has enveloped many of those Israelis who, in the shadow of the ongoing war in Gaza, have managed to return to some kind of daily routine – while tens of thousands of their compatriots remain refugees from their homes in southern and northern Israel.

“Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, which is located some 3 kilometers from Rafah, took a heavy blow on October 7,” members wrote in their Facebook post, against the backdrop of a pastoral drawing from different times. “We are looking for a temporary solution for the upcoming school year for around 40 families. We are a joyful and cohesive community and we would be happy to contribute and integrate into any community that is willing to open its doors to us.”

The post, which perfectly encapsulates the helplessness of the government when it comes to providing solutions and support to the primary victims of the October 7 terror attack, quickly went viral on social media and was given extensive coverage by mainstream media outlets. Within hours, the kibbutz was inundated with offers and, in a follow-up post a few days later, kibbutz members explained that they did not decide to go public with their request out of anger or bitterness but because they “decided to take their fate into their own hands.” They added that they were “surprised to discover how little awareness there is of the situation that so many evacuees find themselves in – uncertainty, lack of control and concern that their communities will collapse.”

Nir Yitzhak is one of 24 communities located up to 4 kilometers from the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip that were evacuated following the brutal Hamas invasion on October 7. While the war in Gaza continues to rage at various levels of intensity and “total victory” over Hamas remains elusive, Nit Yitzhak is one of a dozen border communities to which, as far as the state is concerned, there is nothing to stop residents returning. Indeed, the government has already set a target date for these 12 communities: July 7. Residents of Nir Yitzhak, meanwhile, were recently given an extension and told that they can remain in the hotel on Kibbutz Eilot that has been their home for the past six months until September 1. That extension was only granted because Nir Yitzhak overlooks the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where the IDF has been operating for the past several weeks. Nonetheless, as their Facebook post implies, residents of the kibbutz have no intention of returning to their homes – not in July and not ahead of the next school year, which starts on September 1. The deadly incident in early June, when a terrorist cell once again tried to infiltrate Israel, exacerbated residents’ lack of faith and anxiety. In the incident, which occurred close to the Kerem Shalom border crossing, Sergeant Major Zeed Mazarib, an IDF tracker, was killed.

Like Nir Yitzhak, residents of nearby Zikim, Karmia, Mefalsim, Alumim, Nir Am and Erez also do not intend to return home on the date set by the government and are demanding that authorities allow them to remain out of the kibbutz for a longer period. All of them were included in the list of communities that, according to a government resolution passed in late February, are safe for residents to return to. The same resolution set a timetable for all residents of the Gaza envelope – including Sderot and communities within 7 kilometers of the border – to return home. According to the resolution, residents were allowed to remain in state-funded hotels or apartments until July 7, but incentives were offered to those willing to return sooner. Anyone who agreed to return in March was given a grant, the value of which dropped the longer they waited. In March, the security situation in the Gaza envelope was very different. IDF forces were barely operating in the Gaza Strip and there was only sporadic rocket fire. The situation changed gradually and, when the IDF started operating again in central and southern Gaza, especially the Rafah region, it deteriorated rapidly. Then, the “red color” alarms (an early-warning radar system originally installed by the IDF to warn civilians of imminent attack by rockets) hit the stricken area again, as well as the loud noise of the IDF's artillery. 

Fields of blooming flowers on Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak in 2017 – with Gaza in the background. Photo: Reuters

From the residents' perspective, who are still carrying the physical and emotional scars of the October 7 attack, this is still a war in every respect. The first kibbutz to resist the government’s attempts to force them to return to their homes was Mefalsim. On May 22, they sent a letter to the Tkuma Directorate, declaring that the return date should be postponed. “Members of the community cannot return to a place where they feel less safe than they did on October 6,” Liat Koren Litvinoff, Mefalsim’s community manager, tells Shomrim. Some families have returned to the kibbutz and the letter we sent in also on their behalf – they are willing to return to the hotel and hand back the grant they received so that they can have some emotional peace and quiet. Originally, they wanted to come home because it was so hard for them to live their lives in a hotel, but in light of what is happening now, they want to go back to the hotel – notwithstanding the inconvenience.”

A rocket strike on Kibbutz Mefalsim in December 2023. Photo: Reuters

‘Some people might be able to live like this – but I can’t’

Around half of the residents of Zikim and Karmia, two beach-front kibbutzim north of Gaza, are also unwilling to return to their homes at this time. “The question of where to send their children for the upcoming school year is the key issue for families who want to return,” says Yael Elmakayes, a resident of Karmia and a member of the school’s parent-teacher association. Elmakayes is well aware that the issue of education is controversial across the whole of the western Negev – objections from some parents in various regional councils, those who live further from the border with Gaza, to classes taking place in existing schools, which are relatively close to the border. The three schools in question are in Yad Mordechai, Kibbutz Magen and close to Sapir College. “The state needs to make its mind up as quickly as possible,” she says about the extension beyond July 7. “When rockets are fired at the center, the whole country is shocked; the same should apply to rockets fired at Karmia. The fact that I live next to the border does not mean that I have to live under fire. I live in the State of Israel and the government should ensure that I am secure living anywhere on Israeli territory.”

“The question of where to send their children for the upcoming school year is the key issue for families who want to return.”

Yael Elmakayes, a resident of Kibbutz Karmia. Photo: Courtesy

Residents are not waiting for a government that seems to find it hard to make decisions. Based on conversations with residents of Karmia, for example, it appears that 10 families have decided or are seriously considering spending the next school year away from the kibbutz. If the state obliges them to return by July 7, it is likely that there will be even more families in the same boat. One resident who has already decided not to return is I,, a married mother-of-three in her 50s.

I. is a member of kibbutz Karmia who recently moved from the hotel on Kibbutz Nahsholim in northern Israel to a house she rented in the same area. Her lease is for one year. “I work in Ashkelon and when I go back to Karmia for a day or two, I can feel the war only too well,” she tells Shomrim. “There are incessant booms and you can’t sleep. Why does somebody deserve to live in a combat zone? There may be other people who are willing to live like this, but I am not. So, I decided to take a break for a year. There’s a chance that I will end up spending my own money on this, but given the situation today, I feel like I don’t have a choice.”

Who's coming back and who's not

“There are two options,” says Amitai Mann, a community leader in Karmia. “Either the state extends the period of time that it funds accommodation in hotels or it stands by its decision to end that funding on July 7. If the second option happens, a lot of people will not return. The story here is not just the thunder of the artillery, it’s concern about another infiltration, even though Karmia was one of the communities that was not breached. At the moment, most of the families are on Kibbutz Nahsholim and on the kibbutz we have a framework for a kindergarten for infants up to the age of 3 – with just seven children. Our neighboring kibbutz, Zikim, asked for an extension. Each community is miserable in its own way, but the two kibbutzim are in a similar situation, especially the young families who do not want to return. The worry is that if the extension is denied, and young families move in with their parents across the country, the community will disintegrate. That is something which would really shock members.”

The worry is that if the extension is denied, and young families move in with their parents across the country, the community will disintegrate. That is something which would really shock members.”

Amitai Mann, a community leader on Kibbutz Karmia. Photo: Courtesy

According to Shahar Goldenberg, a community coordinator from Zikim, there, too, there is concern over the future of the community if they are not granted an extension. “So far, it’s mainly older people who have returned, people without small children. And now, after months of living here again, they’re also saying that it has become intolerable here. At the moment, I would estimate that around 10 percent of the families want to leave for good. They are not saying so; they are taking a break for a year or two. In Sdot Yam, where most of the residents of our kibbutz are now staying, this conversation comes up all the time: Are you going back? Will you return? What should we do? And this is one of the most difficult decisions you never thought you would have to make as a parent – a decision designed to protect the family unit.”

An Israeli on the Zikim beach in 2021. Photo: Reuters

Red, orange, yellow and green houses

Around 140,000 Israelis have been evacuated from their homes and found temporary accommodation in some 90 different communities across Israel since October 7. Although many people believe that the issue of internal displacement is now something being experienced by Israelis from the north, while southerners from the Gaza-envelope communities, who experienced the massacre first-hand, are being closely cared for by the Tkuma Administration, reality is vastly different. This also raises a bigger question, which has been simmering just below the surface: What will happen if more and more people decide they don’t want to return to the western Negev? This is something that Shomrim covered extensively in February. In Sderot, too, where most of the residents have returned to their homes, people are unhappy with the old-new routine in a war zone.

In addition to the seven kibbutzim which are now asking to postpone their return, it is worth noting that, of the 24 Gaza-envelope communities that were evacuated, eight of them – Nir Oz, Be’eri, Kfar Aza, Nahal Oz, Sufa, Holit, Re’im and Kissufim – are not able to return since their communities need long-term reconstruction plans for infrastructure and homes. In another three communities – Netiv Ha’asara, Ein Hashlosha and Kerem Shalom – there are security issues preventing residents from returning. The total number of Gaza-envelope communities to which residents will not be able to return in the foreseeable future is 19; in fact, in just five of the 24 evacuated communities most residents have already returned. Those five are Yad Mordechai, Gevim, Or Haner, Sa’ad and Magen. A spokesperson for Kibbutz Magen told Shomrim that around half the residents have returned while the rest are waiting for the end of the current school year, later this month, before returning.

According to a report in Haaretz, there are four frameworks for the reconstruction of homes in Gaza-envelope communities: Red houses, which are earmarked for demolition and for which the state will pay a little over 7,000 shekels (around $1,900) per square meter; orange houses, which were severely damaged and where the cost of rebuilding will a little of 200,000 shekels; yellow houses, which were only slightly damaged and for which compensation has been set at around 40,000 houses; and green houses, which were not damaged at all and whose owners will not be entitled to any compensation from the state. In the three hardest-hit kibbutzim – Nir Oz, Kfar Aza and Be’eri – compensation will be multiplied by a factor of 1.6 and in the other communities by factors of 1.2 and 1.4.

Out of  seven kibbutzim seeking to postpone their return, Kibbutz Nir Am is very much a special case. During the first month of the war, residents held a Zoom conference with the head of the Tkuma Administration, Moshe Edri, who promised them that, in light of the trauma they had been through, they would also be entitled to state-funded relocation for one year – even though the kibbutz’s buildings and infrastructure were undamaged. It was only thanks to the resourcefulness of the kibbutz’s rapid response team, led by Inbal Rabin-Lieberman, that the kibbutz staved off the terrorist attack. Since then, most residents have been living in hotels in Tel Aviv or in rented apartments and talks have been ongoing with the Tkuma Administration over the option of finding a single community to accommodate all the residents.

The Tkuma Administration, for its part, feels obligated toward members of Nir Am because of that verbal promise, even though the kibbutz is included on the list of communities that the government resolution from late February deemed inhabitable. At one point, it was suggested that residents be moved to a compound adjacent to Ein Tzurim, a religious kibbutz in southern Israel – on condition that Nir Am residents agree not to use their barbecues on Shabbat. When that did not happen, the possibility of moving the community as a group to Ashkelon was raised.

According to kibbutz officials, a small proportion of residents, mostly the elderly, have returned to the kibbutz, while most of them remain in Tel Aviv and do not want to go home. Since they are engaged in talks with the Tkuma Administration, residents did not send an official letter seeking an extension.

The hatchery on Nir Am, where the kibbutz’s rapid response team repelled Hamas terrorists. Photo: Reuters

No return to ‘desecrated homes’

Let’s return to the eight Gaza-envelope communities which suffered the most extensive damage on October 7 – those which require long-term rebuilding and whose residents will not be returning to their homes any time soon. Kfar Aza, Be’eri and Nir Oz sustained the worst damage and their reconstruction time is expected to be the longest. Last month, Edri claimed that residents might be able to return to their homes on these kibbutzim within two or three years. For the other five, reconstruction is expected to take less time. In the meantime, however, it seems that everything is moving at a glacial pace; even today, eight months after the massacre, there are still destroyed or burnt-out homes, cracks in the roads and damaged electricity pylons in many of these communities.

In mid-November, the Defense Ministry began an engineering survey of the communities affected, to establish the extent of the repairs that would be needed. The process ended some two months ago. At the same time, the communities began financial negotiations over how the rebuilding work would be carried out in practice. The state decided that it would give the money directly to the kibbutzim, which would be responsible for the actual work – under the supervision of companies selected by the Tkuma Administration. Now the argument over money, as well as on an issue that is close to impossible to quantify: residents’ demands not to have to return to homes that were invaded by Hamas terrorists and in which acts of violence were committed. These are known by residents as “desecrated homes.”

There are about 400 homes like this and the kibbutzim are proposing that the state purchase them from the community and, at a later stage, sell or rent them to other people, while the original residents of these “desecrated homes” will build new homes in areas designated for expansion.

Kibbutz Kfar Aza after the attack. Photo: Reuters

“There are some homes on Nirim that were infiltrated by terrorists, who destroyed furniture or just spent several hours there. These families are willing to return to the kibbutz – but not home, where there were terrorists,” says Bar Heffetz, an evacuee who was moved to an apartment complex in Be'er Sheva. “The Tkuma Administration does not have a good solution for this problem, which exists in other kibbutzim as well. Another even more serious problem is that contracts with Tkuma are not being signed – contracts that would allow for rebuilding work to start – just because of arguments over money. It’s hard to understand this time wasting, because in theory, at least, we could return to Nirim by December, if the security situation permits.”

Bar Heffetz from Kibbutz Nirim. Photo: Courtesy

Another financial argument is over the issue of Value Added Tax and index-linking the cost. The kibbutzim argue that they were originally promised that the sum would not include VAT and that it would be linked to the construction Producer Price Index. “The facts are very simple: Tkuma clearly defined how much each community should get in compensation. They gave a very exact figure and next to each total is said that it does not include VAT,” says Ziv Matzliah, a member of Kibbutz Kfar Aza and chair of the Home Forum, which represents those communities in need of long-term rebuilding. “When it was about time to give us the money, suddenly they said it includes VAT. At first, they told us that the money would not be index-linked and then they backtracked. So, we estimate that we have somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of the money we were promised. It was government representatives who told us how much we would need to rebuild, not the other way round. They toured the communities, checked them out, met with residents, made promises and told us exact numbers.”

“The state has to understand,” Matzliah adds, “that every day that passes without rebuild work getting underway is another day that the country is paying for evacuees to remain away from their home – not to mention all the other ramifications.”

Response from the Tkuma Administration

‘So far, 200 million shekels in grants have been given to communities in the region’

The Tkuma Administration submitted the following response: “The Tkuma Administration is responsible for the rehabilitation and development of the region and all 47 of its communities, including the communities cited in the article, and acts in accordance with government decisions and in coordination with the security establishment in order to facilitate the return of all residents to their homes.

“Within the framework of a government resolution, the Administration approved a budget of 19 billion shekels to provide answers to the needs of the region and its population. The Administration decided to invest a budget of approximately 1.5 billion shekels to rebuild demolished homes and public buildings, a process that will be carried out in full coordination with the communities. For comparison, in the 10 localities with the most severe damage, the property tax authorities assessed the damage at 253 million shekels. According to the Administration’s plan, those communities are expected to receive an amount that is four times higher than this amount.

“In light of events and their ongoing impact, the Tkuma Administration formulated a dedicated and unique rehabilitation outline for the region, which provides a response to both direct and indirect damage, in order to enable holistic and expansive rebuilding while, at the same time, allowing the communities to lead the rehabilitation work themselves, with the guidance of the Administration.

“The Administration works in cooperation with the various communities and each community has been given significant resources, amounting to tens of millions of shekels, giving them flexibility to use those budgets to provide answers to residents’ various needs, including those raised in the article. All of this is based on our faith in the communities and their judgment.

“So far, grants of over 200 million shekels have been given to the communities in the region and further grants of 800 million shekels will be divided among the communities in the region, according to equitable criteria for the rebuilding and development of public space, infrastructure and public buildings.

“The Administration will continue to work intensively on interim solutions and rehabilitation plans, alongside working individually with each community in order to provide solutions for each locality, according to equal criteria.”

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.