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‘The Memories Are Too Much’: Sderot Residents Return Six Months After Hamas Attack

Downtown Sderot, an impoverished Israeli town just a kilometre away from the north-eastern corner of the Gaza Strip, is still quiet six months after 7 October. There is no longer any trace of the police station where Hamas militants took hostages and engaged the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in a two-day battle before the Israelis decided to blow up the building. The site has been levelled and is now home to flags and a memorial.

Seventy people were killed and about 90% of the town’s 28,000 residents were evacuated, most of them put up in hotels up and down the country. A huge new mural saluting the town adorns a wall of a block of flats.

On Thursday, air raid sirens that for weeks had blared incessantly went off in a neighbouring town for the first time in nearly three months as rockets were fired from Gaza, a reminder that the war is not over. But a month ago the Israeli government decided it was time for Sderot’s residents to begin going home.

A shopping centre on the outskirts of town was more lively. Hundreds of vehicles filled the car park and families with young children milled around newly reopened restaurants and cafes. Everyone the Guardian spoke to expressed mixed feelings about being back.

“We came back on Sunday but we think we are going to leave again. It’s not the same city any more. The memories are too much,” said Sivan, 30, whose three-year-old daughter Sheli was playing happily with her new toy, a hobby horse. “Living in a hotel is not good. It’s just a room, not a home. We will have to come up with a new plan.”

A mural painted next to the site of the Sderot police station. Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum/The GuardianA repopulation plan for communities evacuated from southern Israel offers families up to 64,000 shekels (£13,500) in grants if they return. While the 60,000 evacuees will be able to remain in hotel accommodation until 1 July, the amount in grants available will diminish week by week: those who stay away the longest will receive about 10% of the full amount available.

Schools in Sderot reopened in early March, a development that led many families to come back. For Nir, 40, who came home with his wife and three daughters last month, readjusting has been hard.

The family spent 7 and 8 October locked in their safe room while battles raged throughout the town, before being rescued by special forces. Elia, seven, his eldest child, now struggles to leave home. Her best friend’s parents were killed, and Nir lost friends in the attack.

About 20% of the family’s neighbourhood had left for good, he estimated. “My wife wants things to go back to normal but I think for the girls’ sake we need to start again somewhere else, away from the sirens,” he said as he, Elia and her sister Gaia waited for hamburgers.

For many Israelis, the worst of the war in Gaza is over. Most reservists have been rotated out and there are now three and a half brigades fighting in the central city of Khan Younis, compared with seven when ground troops first entered the strip in late October. In Tel Aviv’s bars, people already talk about it in the past tense – “when I was called up”, “when the rockets were falling”.

But as Israel’s operation in Gaza claims more and more lives – 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in the last six months – there is a sense that the rest of the world has forgotten, or diminished, the traumas of that day when Hamas stared the war, killing more than 1,100 people and taking about 250 hostage.

At the site of the Nova festival, which it is believed was not one of Hamas’s planned targets but where militants killed 360 partygoers and raped and abducted more, there are now pictures of the dead surrounded by candles, flowers, Israeli flags and notes and tributes from loved ones.

The eucalyptus grove has become something of a pilgrimage site for Israelis, and foreigners, who come to pay their respects. On Thursday a police officer who responded to the massacre on 7 October told a visiting group of Americans about what he witnessed; many people cried as they walked around the site. Artillery booms nearby occasionally shattered the reverent atmosphere.

Jerry Kirstein, 73, visiting his daughter on a trip from Miami, said: “My parents survived the Holocaust. OTSD, that’s what everyone in this country has: ongoing traumatic stress disorder.”

The family lost a friend, a first responder, who was killed in a gun battle at a military base nearby. “Now the world is judging Israel for defending its people,” Kirstein said. “That’s crazy.”

Israeli soldiers deploy in an area where civilians were killed in Sderot on 7 October. Photograph: Oren Ziv/AFP/Getty ImagesThere are mounting questions from the international community over the IDF’s conduct in the conflict, including its use of AI-driven targeting systems that the Guardian revealed may be contributing to the shockingly high death toll, and Israel’s inability or unwillingness to stave off looming famine by increasing the flow of aid.

Even amid new pressure from the US, Israel’s major ally, for an immediate ceasefire and “concrete and measurable steps to address civilian harm”, support for the war remains strong among the Israeli public – even if trust in the government and in the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is low.

This week saw the biggest street protests since the war began. While the demonstrators, among them the families of the remaining hostages, have different motivations, they are united in their call for early elections.

It is widely believed that Netanyahu is seeking to delay the end of the war, and play up the possibility of full-scale conflict in the north with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, in order to stave off an election. Staying in office remains his best chance of beating corruption charges, which he has always denied, as well as evading responsibility for Israel’s failure to protect its people on 7 October.

Cassie, a 19-year-old student from Manchester, said her last visit to Israel was two years ago. “I think it’s not so much that Israel has changed since 7 October, but everyone else,” she said. “Getting to know people at uni has been difficult. They may not know I’m Jewish, but I see their opinions on social media. The way people see Israel has changed.”

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