‘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

By Lucy Williamson

Middle East correspondent. reporting across Israel

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.

BBC map shows Kfar Aza on Israel's southern border with Gaza and Sasa on the northern border with Lebanon

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.

Ayelet Kohn stands in front of camera


The kidnapped people in Gaza have to come home – now. And for that, there needs to be a deal.”Ayelet Kohn
Resident of Kibbutz Kfar Aza

But victory has not been quick. The war has killed almost 30,000 Gazans, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, and the prime minister is under growing pressure to agree a ceasefire deal to ease Gaza’s suffering and free more than 100 hostages still being held by Hamas.

He has so far refused.

“It’s not like we’re going to kill the idea of fighting against Israel,” Ayelet says. “If Hamas aren’t there, there will be someone else like Hamas – so I don’t see the difference.”

The couple have hung a large black flag from their veranda, in solidarity with the hostages – 19 of them from Kfar Aza.

“The kidnapped people in Gaza have to come home – now,” Ayelet says. “And for that, there needs to be a deal. If that means stopping the war, they need to stop the war.”

A black mourning flag hangs outside the house of Ayelet and Shahar
Image caption,Ayelet and Shachar are displaying a black flag outside their house as a reminder of the hostages still being held by Hamas

And, as the war grinds on with no clear plan for the day-after in Gaza, the question of how to repair a sense of security on Israel’s northern border is even more fraught.

More than 200km (120 miles) away from the Gaza border, at a holiday resort on the Sea of Galilee, Michael Piha agrees that something in Israel’s border communities needs to change.

“Perhaps the biggest mistake was the evacuation,” he says, “because now people realise they can’t go back”.

“Until now, it was part of our life on the border – sometimes it’s quiet, sometimes there’s tension – we got used to it,” he explained. “But it’s no longer an option to be under the threat of some guy in Beirut that would pull the trigger any time he likes.”

Michael is one of 400 residents evacuated from Kibbutz Sasa, a hilly community 3km (1.9 miles) from the Lebanese border. The school there took a direct hit from a Hezbollah missile, he told me. Luckily, it happened after the school had closed and the pupils evacuated.

Head shot of Michael Piha


Perhaps the biggest mistake was the evacuation because now people realise they can’t go back.”Michael Piha
Evacuated resident of Kibbutz Sasa

Over the past four months, residents have been living in small holiday cottages, not made for the winter rain and pale mist that shrouds the lake’s shoreline.

The kibbutz school has been set up here, along with the clinic and a car-pooling system. Freshly-made food is driven an hour from Sasa each day, to help keep a sense of normality.

Residents have been told they might be able to move back home at the end of June. But no-one is sure how that will happen.

Tensions along the border are worsening, and Israel’s army and politicians have warned that the “diplomatic clock” is running out.

They pointedly broadcast threats to push Hezbollah back from the Lebanese side of the border using military force if international mediation doesn’t produce results.

But while Prime Minister Netanyahu appears firmly committed to ground operations in Gaza, here in the north, war would be a last resort.

Hezbollah – better-equipped and better-trained than Hamas – is a different kind of enemy, and this would be a different kind of war.

The costs to Israel would be far higher, with many more people evacuated from northern areas of the country.

But pressure to return residents to Israel’s frontiers is rising.

“I don’t care how he does it,” Michael Piha says. “But [this situation] has to end in a clear-cut way, so that we can live safely in a normal way – no more missiles along the border.”

In the southern communities along the Gaza border, a few people are slowly beginning to return.

Amit Soussana (r), who was held hostage by Hamas and released hugs a friend near her house where she was kidnapped during the 7 Oct attack on the kibbutz, on 29 January 2024 in Kfar Aza, Israel.
Image caption,Residents who were held hostage by Hamas and later released have been returning to their homes in Kfar Aza

The outgoing leader of Israel’s Kibbutz Movement, Nir Meir, told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that members of Kibbutz Or Haner were due to return at the end of the month, and that the movement had been receiving “a stream of applications from people of all classes and all ages”.

In Kibbutz Be’eri, they have begun clearing the rubble and damaged houses in preparation for rebuilding.

And in Kfar Aza, Ayelet and Shachar have begun seeing neighbours flitting in and out to collect belongings or inspect the damage to their homes.

The attacks have thrown the contract in Israel’s border communities into sharp relief.

“[These communities] offered the best quality of life at a low price, in exchange for a red alert siren once a week, a missile once a month,” Nir Meir said. “Now the risk has risen – there’s also a chance of a massacre.”

Shachar adds: “We hope the army has learned something, and keeps a few soldiers between here and Gaza.”

Who knows how they would feel in a few months’ time, he says, but right now “we’ve got 10,000 soldiers between us and Gaza – this is the safest place in Israel”.https://selesaisudah.com/

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