EIN BOKEK, Israel (AP) — For evacuees of Kibbutz Be’eri, the salty waters of the lowest point on earth, known for their healing powers, are little comfort for a grief that feels bottomless.
More than two weeks after Hamas militants killed more than 100 of some 1,100 members of their community, torturing scores and kidnapping 10, the Israeli government has relocated most of the kibbutz to an upscale resort. The hotel-turned-refugee camp is nestled among the jagged bluffs surrounding the Dead Sea, some 1,000 feet (305 meters) below sea level.
The survivors now follow a morbid routine. They wake up and board tour buses repurposed into funeral shuttles. Some attend five services a day, burying friends and family in temporary graves because the Be’eri cemetery is off limits, located in the closed military zone now encircling the kibbutz. At nightly meetings, they gather in the main hall to hear the news of the day. Kibbutz leaders recite the names that have officially migrated from lists of the missing to lists of the dead.
“We are refugees in our own country,” said Nir Shani, a 46-year-old physical therapist, whose five family members have shared two rooms at the hotel for the last two weeks, waiting for word on Amit, Shani’s 16-year-old son held hostage in the Gaza Strip. “We have no home to return to.”
Militants burned down Shani’s home while he was still inside. He lost all his belongings and now wears clothes picked from donation bins.
The Be’eri refugees are among the more than 50,000 people evacuated from Israel’s south since Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage that killed over 1,400 people.
In retaliation, Israel has pounded Gaza with airstrikes, killing more than 5,700 Palestinians, many of them women and children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. The Associated Press could not independently verify death tolls cited by Hamas. The figure includes the disputed toll from an explosion at a hospital last week. Israel has allowed only a trickle of food, water and medicine to enter besieged Gaza, but no fuel. Israeli troops have been amassing on the Gaza border, preparing for a ground invasion.
Former Be’eri residents say that even if the kibbutz is rebuilt, they will not return until they are sure Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for the past 16 years, has been toppled. This raises doubts about the future of once-thriving communities across Israel’s south. Some experts say that even if the Israeli military is successful, new militant groups could fill the vacuum.
Some evacuees from southern cities have opted to stay in their homes. Be’eri refugees did not have a choice. Still, in some ways they are fortunate: The community has stayed together, even as space in Israel’s hotels is scant because they are being used to house thousands of evacuees.
Only 3,000 hotel rooms across the country are still available, according to the Israel Hotel Association, and many evacuated border communities have scattered to find shelter. It is unclear what the government will do if space in hotels runs out.
At the David Dead Sea Resort & Spa, young kids run wild near the hotel bar, leapfrogging over chairs as kibbutz dogs look on lazily. Teenagers escape candlelit vigils in the lobby with joyrides to the gas station, the nearest commercial getaway. Teachers try to corral traumatized children into makeshift classes. The basement doubles as a donation floor and a therapy center, where volunteer therapists provide what clinical psychologist Ruvi Dar calls “mental first aid.”
Dar, who spent a week at the hotel, said conducting normal therapy sessions is a luxury the volunteer team cannot afford. There’s no time to get to know clients. Instead, the goal is to get people out of their rooms and to help them talk through their trauma. “We’re trying to point out parts of their stories that reveal their inner strength, give them hope,” he said.
“We’re seeing loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, nightmares. They’re reliving events in their heads, they’re depressive,” said Dar. “At the moment, we’re just trying to prevent the trauma from developing into post-traumatic stress disorder.”
For many, like Simon King, a 59-year-old landscape gardener, the hotel comforts came initially as a relief but soon felt disorienting.
“It was really nice. You name it, we had it,” said King. “But then reality sets in. People are crying everywhere. We can’t even do our own laundry. And we have nowhere to go.”
When Hamas attacked, King, his wife and his young son spent 26 hours in the darkness of his safe room, without food or water. Once it grew quiet, King climbed onto his roof with a flag and waved down an Israeli tank, bringing the family to safety.
Many grieving families remain in their rooms. Shani’s family is immobilized while they wait for news of Amit. His kids and ex-wife, who were staying in a house across the kibbutz on Oct. 7, were dragged from their home by Hamas militants and set on the grass outside. They watched as the men bound Amit before carting him away in a black vehicle.
“He’s a boy. He is not a warrior. He was in his room, in his bed. And he was taken from his room and from his bed,” Shani said. “It’s a crime against humanity.”
Though some houses are still standing, the kibbutz is uninhabitable. Birdsong is punctuated by buzzing drones overhead and artillery fire from the army base nearby. Rescue teams operate with soldiers to clear rubble and demolish badly damaged buildings.
“Nothing will be the same because at the end of the day, our community lost 10% of its population. Look, from this terrible event, I know all the hundred and more people who were murdered,” said Alon Pauker, the spokesperson for the community and a history professor at Beit Berl College. The school takes its name from Berl Katznelson, one of the first labor Zionists.
Kibbutz Be’eri, too, is named after Katznelson. The community was founded two years before the 1948 war over Israel’s creation, and some residents trace their ancestries back to the Israeli founders.
The kibbutz celebrated its 77th anniversary the night before the attack. Now, there are no guarantees residents will return. Many feel like the government has let them down.
“We thought they were protecting us,” King said of the years before the attack. “But where were they?”
Sam McNeil contributed from Kibbutz Be’eri.
Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war