newsIsrael at War

In war, time stands still for displaced Israelis

Hundreds of thousands of civilians are now scattered in hotels and guesthouses throughout the safer parts of the country.

Residents of Kibbutz Be'eri are now living at a hotel near the Dead Sea, Oct. 20, 2023. Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90.
Residents of Kibbutz Be'eri are now living at a hotel near the Dead Sea, Oct. 20, 2023. Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90.

Did anyone ever tell you that time has no meaning during a war? That’s how it feels in Israel as we enter the third week of the war against Hamas.

The tense days blur together as we wait for the ground incursion into Gaza to begin. Days of listening to the comforting roar of our jets as they head south to pummel Hamas and target its second tier of leaders (everyone knows that the top leaders sit ensconced in their luxury hotels in Qatar). Days of family members and friends absent from home as they train and prepare at the front.

Every day brings news of more and more evacuation orders for towns and communities along the northern border as the threat from Hezbollah heightens. 

Hours before Shabbat, the 23,000 residents of Kiryat Shmona received instructions to leave. That’s in addition to the 28 northern kibbutzim, moshavim and villages that were evacuated last week, and the people in 24 communities in the western Negev who left their homes the day after the Oct. 7 massacre.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced Israelis are now scattered in hotels and guesthouses throughout what is considered the safer parts of the country.

Their sense of time and place has been destroyed. No work, no schools, no routine, no ability to prepare food for their families. They rely on the immense wellspring of mutual aid for which Israel is famous in times of national emergency.

Residents of one small northern border town (whose leaders requested that it not be named out of embarrassment that they are receiving aid as if they were refugees) have been living out of rooms at a hotel 10 minutes’ walk from my Jerusalem apartment.

The hotel, whose windows look out over eastern Jerusalem, lies on the edge of Abu Tor—known as the only “mixed” Arab-Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. 

Last Friday, Arye Dobuler, a young American-born techie now working almost full time to help the evacuees, spent most of the day comforting them and trying to get them to walk out of the hotel for some fresh air and a change of scenery.

“It breaks my heart to see how afraid the people are. I couldn’t persuade many of them to step outside,” Dobuler told JNS when we stopped by to deliver some requested items for Shabbat. “All day the women and kids kept coming to ask if it’s safe here. Are there enough guards, could Arabs rush the hotel?”

Since the start of the war, neighborhood patrols of both police and residents trained and armed have been increased.

Last Tuesday night, when news of the explosion in the Gaza hospital broke, every muezzin in eastern Jerusalem started broadcasting at full volume—and not just the usual “Allahu Akbar” that we hear five times a day. The screeching went on for some 10 minutes, accompanied by loud whistling. Neighbors called the police and 10 minutes later, quiet was restored.

Police are working with the mukhtars, or clan heads, in these predominantly Arab Jerusalem neighborhoods to preserve the uneasy quiet that has prevailed so far.

In the building next door to us, several apartments belonging to owners who live abroad are empty. A few days ago, a subdued family from Ashkelon, the nearest large city to Gaza, quietly moved into one of those apartments. While all the neighbors on the street were poised and ready to shower them with everything from food to extra clothes to toys for the kids, they let it be known that they were fine and had no need for anything.

The World Zionist Organization has organized a “My Home Is Your Home” campaign that so far has allowed 150 evacuated families to take over unused apartments in Jerusalem, Netanya and Tel Aviv owned by Jews from abroad. The WZO is acting as guarantor and working with property managers to ensure that after the war, the apartments will be returned in the condition they were found.

With the near-complete evacuation of the western Negev, the plight of farmers and the danger to the nation’s food supply are high on our minds. More than 40% of the country’s vegetables and field crops are grown in the area. 

Right now, tons of produce are rotting in the fields and on the trees. Many Thai workers fled from the south, and there are simply no people left there to manage the fields and greenhouses. Volunteers are being recruited and organized to help out with the simple tasks of picking and packing, but farmers have emphasized that many of their agricultural operations are technically sophisticated, and they need skilled workers.

Volunteers from all sectors of Israeli society are coming forward as the days pass. Many ultra-Orthodox men have training in search and rescue, as medics or EMTs. Since the beginning of the war, more than 3,000 have volunteered to serve in the IDF, with more than 2,100 already being processed.

For those staying at home to take care of the home front, Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet channel, which normally broadcasts only news and interviews, took the time on Friday to host a 10-minute meditation, breathing and stress reduction session with a relaxation expert.

As we wait restlessly for the next step in this war for our survival, the exercises did help some of us remember that our sense of time will be restored one day.

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