‘Since October 7 we have had no life’: The displaced Israelis living in hotels

For months thousands of Israelis have not been able to go home


Shoshi Souisa, 64, with her dog Lior

V The lobby of the Seasons Hotel in northern Netanya was buzzing. Children whizzed past staff in toy cars. Women in tracksuits filed in and out of the dining room with their dogs on leashes in one hand and live broadcasts of the day’s news on their phones in the other. Waiters scurried around  ravenous diners to collect their used plates and replace knives and forks that had fallen off the tables onto the ground.

Passover has always been a busy time here with tourists and families descending on the beachfront resort to rejoice over the Seder table and break matzah.

But this year was different to all others.

Despite the hotel being packed to capacity – and having been so for seven months – most of the hotel guests weren’t typical foreign tourists or Israeli holidaymakers.

They were some of the more than 135,000 Israeli citizens from 105 towns and communities in the north and south who evacuated their homes shortly after October 7 – either compulsorily, with the help of Israel’s military, its tourism ministry and other government bodies, or voluntarily out of fear – in what has become the largest internal displacement in Israel’s history.

While the refugee crisis in Gaza dominates media headlines, coverage of Israel’s hundreds of thousands of internally displaced citizens remains fairly under-reported.

Residents from the south, alongside Gaza’s border, fled their homes after thousands of Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel by air, land and sea, massacring more than 1,200 people and taking about 250 more hostage.

Meanwhile, from Lebanon Hezbollah fired barrages of rockets and missiles, prompting fears that Tehran’s largest proxy force would simultaneously swarm across Israel’s northern border and replicate the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas.

“On October 8, I grabbed my dog, Lior, and left my house with nothing but the clothes I was wearing,” said Shoshi Sousa, a resident of Kiryat Shmona near the Lebanese border that had a pre-war population of approximately 24,000 and is now virtually empty.

Buses collected Shoshi and other residents and dispersed them in hotels, guesthouses and state-subsidised apartments across Israel.

“I had to take out a loan from the bank for 10,000 shekels to buy clothes because I was too afraid to go home,” said Shoshi, 64, who has been placed in six hotels since Black Saturday, including in Tel Aviv, Zichron, Tiberias and Hadera, before settling in Netanya. She now shares a small hotel room with her husband, Shimon, 64, and their 17-year-old grandson, Oran, who hasn’t been able to go to school for six months.

“Since October, we have no life,” said Shimon, who was born in Casablanca, Morocco, and works in maintenance at a kibbutz 30 minutes north of Netanya.

“The hotel staff are wonderful and put on events to help us switch off, but you don’t forget about what’s going on. There’s no place like home. With our towns just a throwing distance away from Lebanon’s border, how can you go back there at a time of war?”

Traumatised by the October massacre in the south, Israel’s northern residents still have no idea how long their enforced exile will last. Tamar Shteiner, 60, left her home in Kiryat Shmona after hearing about the attacks in the kibbutzim in Israel’s south. She has no plans to return home.

“I don’t have much faith in the government,” she said. “There’s been a lot of flip-flopping about when – or if – we would be able to return home. I unfortunately don’t see peace on the horizon – just a more difficult war looming in the north and more displaced Israelis.”

Like other properties in the area, Tamar’s empty home has since plummeted in value and she has nobody to rent it out to in the meantime.

For now, hotels such as the Seasons Hotel, along with at least 280 other hotels and guesthouses throughout the country, continue to be paid by the Israeli government to house evacuees indefinitely while trying to help the displaced residents make a near normal life out of an extraordinary situation.

“This is no longer just a hotel,” said Michel Al-Grissi, the hotel’s food and beverage manager. “You can stay at a hotel for a week or two, but for six months? It’s a lot.

“Hotels don’t always allow dogs, but many evacuees brought their dogs with them, so what can you do?” The ground floor of the hotel has been converted into a laundromat reserved for the evacuees to use free of charge, and Al-Grissi tries mixing up menus so that meals don’t get monotonous.

“They’re sometimes fed up with what we usually serve,” he said, “but there are only so many ways you can chop up a tomato or make a salad.”

While the evacuees can be demanding, Al-Grissi, who has worked at the hotel for five decades, remains sympathetic to their plight. “We live in a country where there will never be calm or quiet – not until we deal head-on with the root cause of this cycle of violence in Iran.”

Dr Stav Shapira, a senior lecturer at Ben-Gurion University’s School of Public Health, notes that the mass displacement of Israelis is unprecedented not just in its scope but in nature.

“Given that most developed nations do not have active conflicts with their neighbours, it is very rare to experience internally displaced persons for reasons other than natural disasters,” she said.

Since the outbreak of war last October, Netanya has mostly been shielded from rocket attacks, with sirens rarely, if ever, activated in the Mediterranean resort city in central Israel. But the city’s inhabitants are no strangers to terrorism.

Al-Grissi, 69, shifted uncomfortably when remembering Passover 22 years ago. It was the first night, he recalled, and down the road from the Seasons Hotel a Palestinian man affiliated with Hamas walked into Park Hotel’s dining hall where hundreds of guests were celebrating the Seder meal and detonated a suicide bomb, killing 30 people and injuring 140 more.

A year later, in 2003, another Palestinian walked into London Cafe in downtown Netanya and detonated a powerful bomb filled with nails and shrapnel, injuring 38 people.

“The terrorist’s bones landed on my balcony after the bombing while my wife and kids were at home,” recalled Al-Grissi, whose apartment sat above London Cafe.

Residents from Israel’s south have started returning to their homes, but for those from the north, the future remains bleak and uncertain. There isn’t a full-fledged war between Israel and Hezbollah but tensions remain high and an almost daily exchange of fire precludes many northern residents from returning home.

“I see them [Hezbollah fighters] on the fence,” Avichai Stern, the mayor of Kiryat Shmona, recently told The New York Times, fearful of an infiltration by Hezbollah similar to the Hamas atrocities of October 7. Until we remove this threat from the fence, no one can promise me I won’t wake up one morning to see the same thing happen here.”

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