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Israelis are returning to Sderot, the biggest city attacked by Hamas

Children play at Alon Sciences Elementary School in Sderot, Israel, on March 20.
Maya Levin for NPR
Children play at Alon Sciences Elementary School in Sderot, Israel, on March 20.

SDEROT, Israel — The biggest Israeli city that Hamas attacked on Oct. 7 almost completely emptied when the war began. Most of Sderot's 39,000 residents were evacuated to hotels across the country.

Last month, the city officially reopened. About 85% of residents are back, the mayor's office says.

It is an uneasy return.

Sderot is the closest Israeli city to the Gaza border. The war is seen and heard nearby, in north Gaza.

"All it takes is for a student to see a plane in the sky or hear the sounds of explosions across the border in Gaza to have a panic attack," says Naama Henig, principal of the Alon Sciences Elementary School in Sderot.

Recently, elementary students were outside during recess when the sight of billowing parachutes in the sky startled them.

The children were sent back indoors. The municipality sent school staff a text message explaining what they'd just seen: not paragliding Hamas attackers, like those who flew across the Gaza border on Oct. 7, but international aid packages being dropped with parachutes from planes for civilians in Gaza.

The reopening of schools drew families back

In the first days of the Hamas-Israel war, Sderot was a battleground. There was constant rocket fire from Gaza and gun battles with Hamas militants who infiltrated the city. More than 50 residents and others visiting the city were killed, Mayor Alon Davidi says.

The police station in Sderot, seen on Oct. 8, 2023, a day after Hamas-led militants attacked. Israeli soldiers used bulldozers and explosives to destroy the police station and kill Palestinian militants inside it.
/ Maya Levin
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Maya Levin
The police station in Sderot, seen on Oct. 8, 2023, a day after Hamas-led militants attacked. Israeli soldiers used bulldozers and explosives to destroy the police station and kill Palestinian militants inside it.
A tour group from a religious seminary visits the site of the former police station in Sderot on March 20. Hamas militants attacked and killed civilians and police officers in Sderot on Oct. 7.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
A tour group from a religious seminary visits the site of the former police station in Sderot on March 20. Hamas militants attacked and killed civilians and police officers in Sderot on Oct. 7.

The mayor officially reopened Sderot and its schools on March 3. The reopening of schools and the difficulty of living in a hotel for so long were a main draw for families to return to the city. Those who come back are also receiving grants from the government to support them as they re-acclimate.

Residents can return now because Israel's ongoing military campaign means rocket fire from Gaza is less frequent.

The city lined the streets with welcome banners. One says: "Back to coffee on the balcony and the view of greenery." Another: "Back to mom's home cooking."

Nurit Kadosh, center, puts a hand on her chest as soldiers patrol the supermarket in Sderot a few minutes after a rocket hit the building on Oct. 9, 2023.
/ Maya Levin
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Maya Levin
Nurit Kadosh, center, puts a hand on her chest as soldiers patrol the supermarket in Sderot a few minutes after a rocket hit the building on Oct. 9, 2023.
The supermarket in Sderot on March 20, after the city welcomed back residents who had evacuated during the first five months of the Hamas-Israel war.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
The supermarket in Sderot on March 20, after the city welcomed back residents who had evacuated during the first five months of the Hamas-Israel war.

A fourth-grade lesson about trauma

Alon Sciences Elementary School, which had been used as a base for an Israeli paratrooper unit in the first months of the war, welcomed back students who are still reliving their Oct. 7 experience. Nine of them lost close relatives in the Hamas-led attacks, which killed some 1,200 people in Israel, according to the Israeli government.

One sixth grader, Rakefet Ritz, 11, says when the war began, she and her mother didn't leave the safe room in their home for two days. She took on the role of comforting her mother. "Every second she cried, because of the situation. I tried to calm her but she wouldn't calm down," Ritz says.

Eleven-year-old Rakefet Ritz, a student at Alon Sciences Elementary School in Sderot, says she and her mother didn't leave the safe room in their home for two days when the war began. She did her best to comfort her distraught mother.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Eleven-year-old Rakefet Ritz, a student at Alon Sciences Elementary School in Sderot, says she and her mother didn't leave the safe room in their home for two days when the war began. She did her best to comfort her distraught mother.
Sixth grader Oriya Dahan at Alon Sciences Elementary School in Sderot, March 20.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Sixth grader Oriya Dahan at Alon Sciences Elementary School in Sderot, March 20.

Her classmate, Oriya Dahan, 11, says when the gunfire started that day, her mom sent her to close the windows, from where she saw the Hamas pickup trucks driving in. Then Israeli soldiers took up a position on their balcony.

"My mom was really scared, and my mom said the soldiers were really scared," Dahan says, and cries quietly. Principal Henig brings her tissues.

Psychologists taught the teachers coping strategies to help their students, like calming breathing exercises. They tell students they can go under their desks for a safe space when they feel panicked.

One recent morning, a teacher asked her fourth-grade class: "What is trauma?" The kids shout answers: "Anxiety." "Something bad that happened to us." "Something you don't want to remember."

Across the border, there is no return for residents of north Gaza

Davidi says the return of residents to his city sends a message.

"I think that it shows something about the Israeli people. It shows something about the Jewish nation. No one can break us," he says.

The mayor made that point on a visit to north Gaza with Israeli troops. He planted the flag of his city in the middle of a destroyed central square in Gaza City.

Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi officially reopened the city and its schools on March 3.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi officially reopened the city and its schools on March 3.

"If they have the chance, they will kill everyone here," he says. "So I think that the flag of Israel showed them that, you think that ... you can break us, but we are here."

Most Palestinians in north Gaza have fled. Homes, buildings and streets there were destroyed by Israeli bombardment. While Israelis are returning to Sderot, across the border, Palestinians are not yet allowed to return to north Gaza.

"We cannot give them [the] option to come back to their home. We can [have a] discussion about that just after, when we're finished with Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad," Mayor Davidi says, referencing the two main militant groups in Gaza. "And if we need, and the world wants, to build a new neighborhood in Gaza, so do it very, very far away from us."

A hilltop lookout near Gaza

At the edge of Sderot is a hilltop where you can pay a bit more than a dollar and look through a viewfinder for a closer look across the border to north Gaza: destroyed homes and piles of rubble close to the border region. Further in the distance, a large plume of smoke rises.

One onlooker on the hilltop is Oren Chen, 26, who recently returned to the city and was kept up on his first night back by the booms of war.

Oren Chen, 26, looks at Gaza from a hilltop viewpoint in Sderot on March 20, as smoke rises from Gaza.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Oren Chen, 26, looks at Gaza from a hilltop viewpoint in Sderot on March 20, as smoke rises from Gaza.
From a hilltop viewpoint in Sderot, girls on a school trip look toward smoke rising from Gaza on March 20.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
From a hilltop viewpoint in Sderot, girls on a school trip look toward smoke rising from Gaza on March 20.

"It's not always Hamas suffering in the war. In the end, it's the citizens there who suffer from it, just like we do," he says.

Gaza's health ministry says the Israeli offensive has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians. Israel says more than 12,000 of them are affiliated with Hamas.

"It's a mix of sadness and happiness," Chen says, looking into Gaza. "We are winning the war against them, but you never know what's going to come afterwards — if it's going to be an even more extreme group."

A soldier guards every school in Sderot now

Sderot adapted to years of rocket fire from Gaza by building rocket-proofed schools. Since the city reopened to returning residents last month, each school is now guarded by a soldier in uniform.

On a hilltop near the Gaza border is a daycare center, with a new concrete wall shielding it, and a soldier standing out front.

Hen David picks up her two-year-old from the daycare. She returned to the city with her family because schools reopened. She says the wall and soldier protecting the daycare still do not give her a sense of security.

Hen David, 34, picks up her two-year-old son Neria from daycare in Sderot on March 20. The daycare center has a soldier standing guard and new concrete wall shielding it from nearby Gaza.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Hen David, 34, picks up her two-year-old son Neria from daycare in Sderot on March 20. The daycare center has a soldier standing guard and new concrete wall shielding it from nearby Gaza.

"Since Oct. 7, nothing gives a sense of security," she says.

Then, she and her husband buckle their son in the child seat, and drive off to her family's house for a final day of mourning for her uncle, who was stabbed and killed at a southern Israeli gas station last month by a man who grew up in Gaza.

It was one of several Palestinian attacks against Israelis that have taken place throughout the country since Oct. 7.

Itay Stern and Samantha Balaban contributed reporting from Sderot.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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