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At Tourist Hotels, Israeli Evacuees Plan for Long Stays to Escape Border Attacks

A joyful clamor echoed in the ballroom of the Golden Crown Hotel. Kindergarten was in full swing for 30 children from Arab al-Aramshe, a village next to Israel’s border with Lebanon. Only this class was meeting 44 miles south, in Nazareth, where nearly 800 of the village’s residents have been living since mid-October, when they were evacuated because of the risk of attacks by the militant group Hezbollah.

“On an emotional level, it’s hard for the children because their parents are under stress,” said Dalal Badra, an inspector from Israel’s Education Ministry, who was helping to organize the classes. “They can sense that something is wrong.”

These children are part of the largest internal displacement in Israel’s history, a modern-day exodus of more than 125,000 people. They have been evacuated from towns in the south, near Gaza, where Hamas extremists massacred Israeli civilians and soldiers a month ago, and from the north, where tensions have escalated in recent days as Israel has exchanged fire with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, fueling fears that Hezbollah fighters will swarm across the border and do the same to them.

It is a logistically complex and costly operation for the Israeli state, which is paying to house the evacuees indefinitely in 280 hotels and guesthouses scattered across the country. As the days stretch into weeks, the government is setting up makeshift schools and medical clinics. In the south, where many of the evacuees survived the Hamas attacks, it has recruited specialists to offer trauma counseling.

The Golden Crown, which usually caters to tourists visiting biblical sites in the hometown of Jesus, has been converted into a kind of refugee resort, offering a simulacrum of village life. Its souvenir shop is closed, and the swimming pool has been drained, but the dining room offers three meals a day, the lobby heaves with strollers, and laundry flutters from the balconies of rooms packed with families.

Hunched over a laptop at the bar, Adeeb Mazal, Arab al-Aramshe’s community manager, tried to keep track of his vagabond villagers. He said he worried about getting enough aid to pay for their accommodations. He worried about how long they would have to stay in Nazareth. (Israeli officials estimate until the end of the year.) And he worried about their mental health, with the idleness nourishing their fears about Hezbollah.

“I try to explain to people, ‘We’re in an emergency situation; we’re not on vacation,’” said Mr. Mazal, who is 34 and, like virtually all of the residents of Arab al-Aramshe, a member of Israel’s minority Arab population.

Adeeb Mazal, the community manager of Arab al-Aramshe, a village in northern Israel that was evacuated to Nazareth, said he worries about the mental health of the villagers.
A view of Nazareth seen from the Golden Crown Hotel, where villagers from Arab al-Aramshe have been living since mid-October.

Being Arab makes little difference to their perception of the threat from Hezbollah. Several of Arab al-Aramshe’s residents have served in the Israeli military and the police force. An Israeli flag flies at the entrance to the village. Some said Hezbollah’s fighters would not hesitate to attack them. As for the rockets, said Ali Mohamid, 68, “They don’t discriminate between the blood of Arabs and the blood of Jews.”

Still, questions of identity are never far from the surface in Israel, and they are playing out in other ways during this mass displacement.

Twenty miles east of Nazareth, in the resort town of Tiberias, hundreds of Israeli evacuees from towns and kibbutzim along the Lebanese border are camped out in the Caesar Premier Tiberias Hotel. They have a splendid view of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights beyond, but nobody is using the palm-fringed swimming pool.

Though not as traumatized as the survivors of the Oct. 7 attacks in the south, their mood is watchful and wary. They wonder how long they will be kept from their homes, and whether this enforced exile will have lingering effects.

“We’ve tried to make a normal life out of an abnormal situation,” said Lea Raivitz, 68, who lives in Bar’am, a kibbutz less than 1,000 feet from the border with Lebanon. “But being a refugee, even a luxury refugee, is still a refugee. We can’t predict the future. We can’t think about the past. We live in the here and now.”

Lea Raivitz, 68, an evacuated resident of Kibbutz Bar’am, in the dining hall of Caesar Premier Tiberias Hotel in Tiberias. “Being a refugee, even a luxury refugee, is still a refugee,” she said.
The Sea of Galilee is seen from the balcony of the Caesar Premier Tiberias Hotel, one of the hotels where residents evacuated from Bar’am, a kibbutz near the Lebanese border, are staying.

As with Arab al-Aramshe, the 400 residents of Bar’am who are at the hotel have tried to recreate their world, with classes and cultural programs. A baby was born during the evacuation, while the oldest evacuee is 95.

For Ms. Raivitz, the biggest fear is that spending months away from the kibbutz will erode its communal culture — change the “we to me,” as she put it. Already, she said, some were complaining about the hotel and moving in with family or friends nearby. As they do, they are taking cars from the fleet of 100 vehicles that belongs to the kibbutz and now fills the hotel’s parking lot.

“People are starting to think of themselves,” said Ms. Raivitz, who has worked as a school principal and factory manager. “We always had people to take care of everything. Now they are having to get used to taking care of themselves.”

Returning home is out of the question. From the road leading to Bar’am, she said, one can watch militants hoist Hezbollah’s flag at an outpost. The kibbutz’s fences, gates and security cameras could not keep out marauding fighters any more than they did in the kibbutzim attacked by Hamas near Gaza.

A senior Israeli official said the military was constantly monitoring the situation on the Lebanese border and was ready if Hezbollah changed its strategy. After the harrowing events of Oct. 7, which caught the army off guard, few are reassured.

While the northern front has been quieter than the battleground of Gaza, there are signs of escalation. Hezbollah has begun using more powerful artillery, putting more Israeli cities at risk. A guided-missile on Sunday wounded two Israeli civilians, while Israel’s counter-strikes have killed at least 70 Hezbollah militants.

Asaf Hamawy, 47, who works for an electronics company, ventured home recently to pick up clothing and other belongings in Kiryat Shmona, a once-bustling border city of 20,000 that is now virtually deserted. A rocket fired by Hezbollah had landed down the street from his house, incinerating three cars.

“I would not take my family back,” said Mr. Hamawy, who was a soldier from 1994 to 1997. “I’m not the hero I was 20 years ago. I have three kids now.”

Asaf Hamawy, 47, a former soldier who was evacuated to Tiberias, Israel, said he would not take his family back to their home in Kiryat Shmona, a city near the Lebanese border.
Evacuated residents from Kiryat Shmona, near the Lebanese border in the north of Israel, last week on the balcony of the Caesar Premier Tiberias Hotel.

None of the evacuees said they were reassured by the recent speech by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, which was full of fiery language but signaled that the group was not on the brink of joining the war against Israel. The steady rain of rockets is a reminder that things can escalate very quickly.

“He’s just testing us,” Mr. Hamawy said. “He wants to see how many days it will take the Israeli army to demolish Hamas. He’s trying to irritate Israel and make us work to defend the northern border.”

When a reporter visited Kiryat Shmona in late October, Merkava tanks lurked under the trees as Israeli soldiers patrolled, insisting they could repel any Hezbollah attack. Heavy gunfire crackled in the background, reverberating through the valley. The city is a frequent target of strikes, the damage visible in one house where a rocket left a gaping hole in the roof and charred walls.

Residents cannot return until Israel ensures that Hezbollah does not pull off a Hamas-like attack, said Avichai Stern, the mayor of Kiryat Shmona. A video once released by the militants depicted an invasion of northern Israel that looked eerily like what Hamas did across the border from Gaza: a barrage of rockets followed by a multipronged ground attack by Hezbollah fighters.

“I see them on the fence,” Mr. Stern said, referring to the Hezbollah fighters. “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.”

An activity board for evacuees at the Caesar Premier Tiberias Hotel.

Adam Sella contributed reporting from Nazareth and Tiberias, and Gal Koplewitz from Jerusalem.

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