On Oct. 6, Eilat was a town of 50,000 residents. Less than two months later it is currently at about 110,000, unofficially. The resort town in Israel’s south has become an absorption center for Israelis all over the country whose own towns were evacuated in the wake of the attacks.
Some of those were “routine” evacuations—towns in the north in range of Hezbollah rockets. (As strange as it is to consider such an evacuation “routine.”) But others are as far from normal as Israelis have ever dealt with. Sderot, a community of 30,000 near Gaza that has become synonymous with living under the threat of rocket fire, is a ghost town. Because the threat isn’t “just” rockets anymore.
Nir Oz, the kibbutz that lost nearly a quarter of its residents to Hamas’s bloodlust on Oct. 7, has existed in one form or another for almost as long as the state of Israel has. Kfar Azza is even older than Nir Oz. Be’eri was founded in 1946 to enable Israelis to repel an Egyptian invasion. These places represent the ideal of the chalutzim—Jews, often fleeing nearby Arab states, willing to move to Israel’s sentry towns.
And now they are empty.
This occurred in the state’s early years too. Occasionally a community would be forced to relocate temporarily for its own safety. But soon that stopped happening.
Until it happened again on Oct. 7, 2023.
This is crucial to understanding Israel’s stated resolve to fight this war until it is won. The current conflict isn’t just a more-intense version of, say, the 2014 outbreak of violence in and around Gaza. The difference isn’t one of degree; it is one of kind.
This is obvious to Israelis, even as Westerners are largely oblivious to it. “It was a shocking moment because it felt like it was a scene from 1948,” Einat Barzilai, a writer, told the Times of Israel two days after the attack.
This is the part of the story normally lost in the nakba narrative, which only allows for Jews as villains not victims. Mishmar HaYarden, a moshav in the Galilee, was destroyed by Syria in Israel’s war of independence. It was not rebuilt (although another community adopted the name in tribute). Atarot fell to the Jordanians. Nitzanim fell to the Egyptians. The kibbutzim known as the Etzion bloc were the site of a famous last-stand defense during that war that ended in defeat (and a gruesome post-surrender massacre of remaining Jews by Arab fighters) not far from Jerusalem.
All these villages were part of the Arab attempt to wipe the Jews off the map, just as Hamas wants and promises to do. This war is not about a two-state solution, nor is it about Israeli expansionism. It’s a war for survival. When the shooting stops, Gazans who moved south will go back north. But can the Israelis of those emptied border communities go back home too? If Hamas is still in power next door, they will simply resume planning a continuation of Oct. 7—which, again, was clearly a continuation of the plan to eliminate the Jewish state in 1948.
Residents of those communities that I’ve spoken to plan to return. They will not be cowed by Iranian-funded colonizers. As in 1948, the war is over when the war is won, because it is a war for survival.
And despite the terrible and terrifying past two months, on this score Israelis are optimistic. As Einat Barzilai noted, anything that reminds Israelis of 1948 is “also a reminder that the spirit of those pioneers ultimately won that war, and will win the next ones.”