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When Ayelet Khon moved back to the Kfar Azza kibbutz with her husband two months after the brutal Hamas-led attack of Oct. 7, the first thing she did was hang a string of rainbow-colored lights up on the front patio.
At night, when darkness drenches this community, the twinkling colors are the only lights visible.
“We are going to keep these lights on and never turn them off — even if we’re out for the evening — they are lights of hope,” Ms. Khon said she told her husband, Shar Shnurman.
Eight hundred people used to live here, including families with children who scampered about in the evenings. Everyone who survived the attack was evacuated on Oct. 8. Since then, their homes have been dark. Even the streetlamps are gone, mowed down when tanks plowed through the narrow lanes as the Israeli army arrived to defend against the attackers.
Ms. Khon, 56, and Mr. Shnurman, 62, are the only residents who have returned so far. At night, the silence is eerie, punctured episodically by the thunderous sound of bombs exploding in Gaza.
Some people may think they’re crazy, coming back here, just the two of them, Mr. Shnurman said. But to him, coming home was natural.
“We came back for the most basic reason: This is our home,” said Mr. Shnurman, a gregarious giant of a man. “This is where I want to be. It’s the most logical thing, to want to be home.”
He still thinks of this spot, a stone’s throw from Gaza, as a piece of paradise, or, as the locals who lived under the threat of missiles for years put it, “99 percent heaven, 1 percent hell.” Half of the homes were damaged in the attack, but nature has continued on its merry way. The swordlike leaves on the squat palm trees wear the bright green sheen of the desert winter, and thick bougainvillea vines that cling to houses spill purple flowers all about.
It is a communal settlement with no community. The dining hall that served hot lunch every day is closed, and the general store is shuttered. There is no mail, and there are no online deliveries. To buy groceries, you need to leave the kibbutz. Ms. Khon, an acupuncturist and massage therapist, can’t work; her client base was the kibbutz, and no one is around.
About 200,000 Israelis were evacuated after Oct. 7 from towns and farming communities like Kfar Azza that abut the Gaza Strip and were hit hard during the attack, and from villages near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where shelling by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah intensified at the same time.
The government has put displaced residents up in hotels and is footing the bill for their meals. But prolonged evacuations of this scale have never happened before in Israel, and with the war now entering its fifth month, the unspoken question on everyone’s mind is whether anyone who lived near Gaza will ever feel it is safe enough to return.
Some displaced residents from Kfar Azza said it was premature to even consider returning before the government approved resettlement in towns within 2.5 miles of the border with Gaza, where the Israeli army has been waging a war to destroy Hamas. Mr. Shnurman and Ms. Khon did not ask for permission to return, although the army’s regional Gaza division has said that residents interested in returning have the option of doing so, according to a military spokesman.
More than 60 Kfar Azza residents were among the roughly 1,200 people in Israel who were murdered on Oct. 7, and some 18 men, women and children from the kibbutz were among the roughly 240 who were kidnapped. Hamas is still holding five hostages from the kibbutz.
“We are not going home until the hostages are back home,” said Ronit Ifergen, 49, a mother of three from Kfar Azza.
So Ms. Khon and Mr. Shnurman, who hasn’t resumed his factory job yet, spend their days participating in what has become a popular pastime in Israel: cooking for troops in the area who have heard about his barbecue and her banana bread by word of mouth.
They are never entirely alone. Kibbutz members who do their military reserve duty on-site stop in for hot goulash, and journalists and others regularly come to see the devastation with their own eyes — the charred row of houses where the young adults lived, the bullet holes in kitchen cabinets, the upended mattress under which Doron Steinbrecher was hiding when she was kidnapped.
Photographs show Ms. Steinbrecher with her long blonde hair pulled back, smiling for the camera, wearing a sparkly dress for a night on the town. She is still being held hostage in Gaza, and looked gaunt and fearful in a video released on Jan. 26 by her Hamas captors.
Ms. Khon was having her morning coffee on the patio on Oct. 7 when she heard a barrage of missiles that turned the sky overhead a chalky white. The noise was so loud that Mr. Shnurman thought a helicopter had landed on their house.
They checked on their next-door neighbor, whose husband was away, and then hunkered down in their bedroom that doubles as a safe room. Twenty minutes later, the neighbor’s husband called and said he couldn’t reach her. Could they check in on her again?
“Shar went over, and when he got back, he told me, ‘They murdered Mira,’” Ms. Khon said. “I said, ‘That’s not funny.’ And he said, ‘I’m not joking.’”
The couple think the only reason they survived is because their unit and the neighbor’s unit are attached, and the terrorists must not have known there was another family in the complex.
“I realized then, we’re in a fight for our lives here,” Mr. Shnurman said. “There was a war going on outside our window. And where was the army?”
It took 30 hours until Israeli soldiers rescued them from their safe room, where they had no food, water or electricity. They kept their voices down while hearing the sounds of gunfire and shouting in Arabic outside. When they emerged, they saw bodies and bullet casings all over the kibbutz, and the air was filled with the stench of blood and burned homes.
Like everyone else, the couple were evacuated to a hotel north of Tel Aviv. But they didn’t know what to do with themselves there. They love cooking and feeding people, and they didn’t even have a refrigerator. So on Dec. 10, the fourth night of Hanukkah, they moved back to their snippet of paradise.
Mr. Shnurman goes for a walk every morning. “Every day I pass the houses of the dead, and every morning, I cry all over again,” he said. “And then I come home, and I know: This is the right place to be.”
Other residents cannot bear the thought of returning. “My mother visited just once, and she hugged me and burst out crying, and said, ‘I’m scared to death just being here,’” Ms Khon recalled. “For me, it was the opposite. The desire to go home was greater than the fear.”
Coming back to the kibbutz meant that life won, Mr. Shnurman said. “We beat the death that knocked on our door,” he said.
“Our strength as Jews is that after the Holocaust, we didn’t say, ‘No fair.’ We pulled ourselves up and built a country,” Ms. Khon said. “We beat Hamas by coming back here. They came and said, ‘We’ll uproot you,’ but they failed. We came back to our home. Our victory is that we’re staying here.”