EILAT—In the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist invasion, 217,000 Israelis fled from the country’s southwest and north. Eilat doubled its population by taking in 60,000 evacuees. However, the Red Sea resort city still appears deserted.
“The city is usually always busy. We are entering the holiday season with Pesach and Shavuot coming up. Yet the city is so quiet, the malls are empty, it’s very sad to see Eilat like this,” Revital Elisha Suliman, public relations manager at the King Solomon Hotel in Eilat, told JNS.
Resilient evacuees struggle to retrieve a semblance of normal life in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, bordered by Egypt to the west and Jordan to the east.
Inside the hotel’s lobby, parents display great creativity in keeping their children occupied as dogs amble aimlessly at all hours of the day. Scooters, skates and bicycles crowd the elevators, while talk of bribing children with candies to make it to breakfast on time can be heard in shared living areas.
“There is a school in Kibbutz Eilot and a high school just outside of Eilat with dedicated transportation but some parents refuse to send their children to school,” Elisha Suliman said.
Late on Saturday, Oct. 7, Lior Raviv, the managing director of the Isrotel chain of hotels, contacted his staff to inform them of an influx of internally displaced Israelis would arrive in Eilat the next day.
“All we knew was that, come Sunday, cars and buses full of people would start arriving. We needed to stop taking reservations and make space for the evacuees,” Elisha Suliman said.
To keep people together, each community was placed in the same hotel. Kibbutz Nirim resettled at the King Solomon, evacuees from Kibbutz Nir Oz and Kibbutz Kerem Shalom went to Isrotel’s Yam Suf Hotel and Kibbutz Re’im members were evacuated to the chain’s Sport Club hotel.
No shoes, no toys
“We prepared 170 rooms. On Sunday evening, at 7 p.m., they finally arrived. We had readied the dining room for them. I will never forget the smell of smoke, just as if they had emerged from a fire. They wore nearly nothing. Some were not even wearing shoes,” Elisha Suliman said.
“I will never forget the sight of children with no shoes, no toys, nothing really. Dogs were barking, crying even. We never let dogs inside our hotel, but this time we did,” she added.
Some of the evacuees had not showered or even eaten in over 24 hours.
“We didn’t know if we’d have space for them for more than a couple of nights but guests just stopped showing up. We were flooded with cancellations because of the war,” Elisha Suliman said.
To lift the mood and keep everyone occupied, hotel staff and kibbutz leaders worked together to arrange free activities including Pilates classes and karaoke nights.
“In Nirim, six people were killed and five kidnapped. There were three families in the hotel who had lost someone, we organized a shivah [seven-day mourning period] place for them inside the hotel where people could light candles,” Elisha Suliman said.
Within a month, evacuees started helping in the laundry room, ironing staff members’ uniforms and hotel sheets. Some helped in the kitchen, preparing sweets, while others tidied up the outside areas.
By the end of January, most evacuees from Nirim were relocated to temporary apartments in Beersheva.
Galia Heller Kramer, 62, a retired teacher from Nirim, decided to stay. “My husband, Yossi, is a therapist who treats evacuees while I teach children in school. We will be moving to a hotel in the Old City of Beersheva soon,” Heller Kramer told JNS.
On Oct. 7, as terrorists ravaged Israel’s southwest and murdered some 1,200 people, including some of her friends and former students, Heller Kramer, her three daughters, who were visiting from central Israel for the Simchat Torah holiday, and her three grandchildren, hid in different houses.
“We stayed locked in for seven hours until the army came to rescue us. I have been living at the King Solomon for three and a half months. It’s hard living with the great unknown,” Heller Kramer said.
On Oct. 6, Heller Kramer had attended a Simchat Torah celebration and spent the night at a friend’s. When she was rescued, she was still wearing her party attire.
“I bought some things and borrowed clothes from other people. What I miss the most are my books and souvenirs from my father. I did not even have the time to grab a picture of my parents,” Heller Kramer said.
“The government pays for board and accommodation at a discounted price for all residents, while the kibbutzim take care of their daily needs,” Elisha Suliman said.
The spa facilities turned into a center for kibbutz services, with areas serving as a post office and a psychological treatment center. One of the reception rooms became a kindergarten.
Kiryat Shmona families
Evacuees from Kiryat Shmona, Israel’s northernmost city, who arrived three weeks after Oct.7, still occupy 100 rooms at the King Solomon.
The Kiryat Shmona families are part of 44,334 evacuated Israelis currently living in hotels and are expected to stay at the King Solomon until June.
“We receive regular updates from the government. Every two months, they inform us that we need to extend the evacuees’ stay,” Elisha Suliman explained.
The hotel has tightened up security. “We have a safe room [shelter against enemy rockets] on every floor, there is security at the entrance and inside the hotel. Our security personnel carry guns. That’s new,” Elisha Suliman added.
“We rent our rooms at a discounted price to continue operating as a business in some capacity,” she said.
To bring tourism back, the city, in collaboration with the Eilat Tourism Corporation, launched a campaign. As part of the campaign, those booking a vacation for a minimum of two nights in the middle of the week during February will receive a 300 shekel refund.