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Israelis hesitantly return to Sderot

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The biggest Israeli city that Hamas attacked on October 7 - it was still a battleground when NPR's Daniel Estrin visited just two days later.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: And as we're driving, we're seeing now huge flames and plume of smoke. Here it is. Look at - right there in front of us.

KELLY: Israel evacuated people from the city of Sderot near the Gaza border at the beginning of the war. Now they're returning, as Daniel Estrin reports.

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: Schools reopened a few weeks ago in Sderot after five months of war. When the war began, nearly the entire city of about 39,000 people evacuated to hotels across the country. But they can come back now because Israel's ongoing military campaign means rocket fire from Gaza is less frequent. We visited Alon Sciences Elementary School and met students who were still reeling from October 7.

ORIYA DAHAN: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Eleven-year-old Oriya Dahan says, when the gunfire started, her mom told her to close the windows, and she saw the Hamas pickup trucks driving in. Israeli soldiers took up a position on their balcony. She says, my mom was really scared, and my mom said the soldiers were really scared.

ORIA: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: "I'm sorry," she says.

She cries quietly, and school principal Naama Henig brings her tissues.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOSE BLOWING)

ESTRIN: Nine students at the elementary school had close relatives killed. Israel says 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas attacks, including 50 in Sderot.

NAAMA HENIG: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: The principal says, "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."

HENIG: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: A few days ago during recess, she saw a couple third-graders pointing. She asked them, what are you doing? They said, we're looking for a place to hide when the terrorists come to school.

HENIG: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: She says psychologists taught the teachers coping strategies to help the kids. They're using breathing techniques and tell children they can go under their desks for a safe space when they feel panicked.

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: And they're teaching very different kinds of lessons now. This teacher asks her fourth-grade class...

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: (Non-English language spoken)?

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: ...What is trauma?

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: The kids shout answers - anxiety, something bad that happened to us, something you don't want to remember. The city has lined the streets with welcome banners. One says, back to coffee on the balcony and the view of greenery. Another says, back to mom's home cooking. A shawarma restaurant is packed at lunchtime as supermarkets' glass doors with the bullet holes have been replaced.

ALON DAVIDI: I opened the city in 3 of March.

ESTRIN: March 3 is when Mayor Alon Davidi welcomed residents back.

DAVIDI: And you can see, in two weeks, more than 26,000 people come back.

ESTRIN: Seventy percent of the city has returned, he says, largely because schools reopened. Those who return are also receiving grants from the government.

DAVIDI: I think that it shows something about the Israeli people. It shows something about the Jewish nation. No one can break us.

ESTRIN: He 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.

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

ESTRIN: Most Palestinians in North Gaza fled. Homes, buildings, streets were destroyed by Israel. While Israelis are returning to Sderot, across the border in North Gaza, Palestinians are not yet allowed to return.

DAVIDI: For my opinion, we cannot give them option to come back to their home. We can discussion about that just after, when we're finished with Hamas and jihad. And if we need and the world want to build new neighborhood in Gaza, so do it very, very far away from us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

ESTRIN: At the edge of Sderot is a hilltop where you can peer across the border to North Gaza.

We just paid five shekels, a bit more than a dollar, to look through this viewfinder, and you can see this entire row of homes in Gaza destroyed - I mean, piles of rubble and then, further in the distance, a large plume of smoke.

OREN CHEN: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: We meet 26-year-old Oren Chen, who just came back to the city. The booms of war across the border kept him up on his first night back. He's here on the hilltop for a view of the war.

CHEN: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He says, "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."

Gaza's health ministry says the Israeli offensive has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians.

CHEN: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He said, "it's a mix of sadness and happiness. 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."

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: On the next hilltop over is a day care with a new concrete wall shielding it from Gaza. There's a soldier at the entrance. Sderot adapted to years of rocket fire from Gaza by building rocket-proofed schools, but now every school here has a soldier out front. Hen David picks up her 2-year-old from day care.

HEN DAVID: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: She says, "all this doesn't give us a sense of security. Since October 7, nothing gives a sense of security."

I ask, what about moving somewhere else, farther away from the Gaza border?

DAVID: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: She says, "since October 7, the whole country is dangerous."

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

ESTRIN: And then she and her husband take their 2-year-old and drive off to her family's house for the final day of mourning for her uncle, stabbed and killed at a gas station this month by a man who grew up in Gaza.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Sderot.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHESSBOXER'S "I CAN'T TELL MY SECRET WEAPON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.