As Traumatized Southern Israel Evacuates, Residents Ponder Revenge

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Israelis are evacuated Sunday from the southern town of Sderot, near Israel’s border with Gaza.

SDEROT, Israel – Just a mile away from Gaza, the city of Sderot is no stranger to being on the front lines of Israel’s conflict with Hamas.

Residents know the routine well – when the rockets fall here, they have 15 seconds to get to safe rooms before a potential hit. Bus stops double as bomb shelters.

But this time things are different. Border communities are still reeling from the Hamas-led assault that killed 1,400 Israelis, and now amid the trauma, there is an unwillingness to return to the status quo.

“We want to make these terrorist attacks stop,” said Maor Ben Haim, 34, as he loaded his six-months-pregnant wife and children onto an evacuation bus over the weekend. “That’s it. We were too patient, too gentle. I think the nation is now united to do what should have been done a long time ago.”

Israel has said it is ready to crush Hamas, and residents here are shipping out as Gaza braces for the force of an all-out assault. Like other communities along the 40-mile fence with Israel, the streets of Sderot now lie largely empty save for security forces, volunteers and the smattering of residents who have decided to stay. Nine out of 10 people in the working-class southern city of 30,000 people have left.

Thousands who did not flee in the initial attack have been ferried out like Ben Haim and his family to hotels on the Dead Sea and other parts of Israel.

Passing them on the roads are columns of soldiers and armored vehicles, as hundreds of thousands of troops ready themselves for the expected ground invasion.

In recent days, much of Sderot and its surroundings has been declared a closed security zone as the military prepares staging grounds on the border. New concrete road blocks have been installed to stop traffic as artillery blasts out shells into Gaza.

From an overlook in the city, beyond the supposedly impenetrable border fence that Hamas made light work of in the Oct. 7 assault, the Gazan cities of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia stretch out below. Black plumes rise from the sky as shells from Israeli tanks hit their mark, with the sound of explosions occasionally punctuated by the rattle of machine gun fire.

On the other side of the fence, 2,750 Palestinians in Gaza have already died in the air and artillery assault since last Saturday, according to health authorities there.

But that doesn’t bother Rachel Dahan, 85, one of just 4,000 residents who remain in Sderot.

“Shut the door, shut the door!” she implored, as a nurse checked in with her on Monday, still paranoid that gunmen were on the loose.

An Arabic speaker after having grown up in Morocco before emigrating to Israel, she has fond memories of visiting Gaza to eat fish and attend weddings before the 40-mile-long separation fence was constructed to pen off the Gaza Strip.

But now she’d like to see it erased. “If I could, I’d go kill them all,” she said, letting out an “oy, oy, oy” at the boom of outgoing artillery at the end of a temporary humanitarian cease-fire.

Like many in this town, she was a die-hard supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but now she curses at his name.

She’s the first call of the day for Malka Stein, a nurse from Rescuers Without Borders, who had traveled from northern Israel to volunteer. But now she thinks she may be needed more at home, as the Israeli government moved to evacuate 28 communities close to the Lebanese border, amid fears of a broader conflagration with Hezbollah.

“It’s not good,” she said, as she swept Dahan’s floor and made her lunch.

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Malka Stein, a nurse from Rescuers Without Borders, arrives at the home of Rachel Dahan, 85, in Sderot.

Israeli authorities have urged everyone to leave Sderot and other communities within a few miles of Gaza – though evacuation orders here aren’t compulsory.

At a makeshift aid distribution point, Veronica Odarchuk, 19, who fled the war in Ukraine a year-and-a-half ago for Israel, sorted packets of coffee, instant noodles and sugar to be ferried to the last remaining residents of the city.

Now she’s not sure her family made the right decision.

“I think Ukraine might be safer right now,” she said, as she prepared to go out on a distribution run.

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Veronica Odarchuk from Ukraine and Samuel Korf from Russia work at an emergency aid center that was set up in Sderot on Monday.

The last of those taking up the offers of the evacuation buses gathered at a school in the rocket-scarred town to head out over the weekend, dragging suitcases and hauling bags.

A 15-year-old clung to a pink doll. Volunteers helped the elderly board.

As a second group waited for a ride out, a rocket flashed across the sky and people rushed toward the school shelter, reminding some of their reasons for leaving. About 74 rockets have made direct hits on homes here over the past week.

But for some, the decision is harder than others. Yossi and Shmurit Edrich’s baby was born on Oct. 6, just hours before Hamas’s incursion into their town. Premature and weighing just over 4 pounds, the baby has to stay in the hospital for a week.

But the Edrichs were desperate to get their other kids out to safety, leaving their newborn in the hands of the doctors for now.

“My heart is breaking,” said Shmurit. “But I have four other children; I have to take care of them.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Yossi and Shmurit Edrich arrive at the evacuation point with their family in Sderot on Sunday.

The city has emptied out before, but people are expecting a longer haul this time, said Ayelet Shmuel, director of the city’s resilience center. “The city knows how to run,” she said. “But this time we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

At a staging ground not far from the border fence, Israeli troops are gearing up for a bloody battle. Some 286 have already died.

“Now we are going for our revenge,” said Capt. Nadav Mizrahi, a reserve officer deployed with a tank brigade. “To destroy everything from top to bottom,” he said. “I’m sure we can do it. It will take time and cost lives. But it’s our country. We will do anything.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
Clouds of smoke rise from northern Gaza as a result of Israeli airstrikes, as seen from Sderot.