EIN BOKEK, Israel — If there is such a thing as a five-star refugee camp, the David Dead Sea Resort and Spa may be it.
The luxury hotel on the shore of Israel’s salt lake has a sprawling pool surrounded by deck chairs, sun umbrellas and palm trees.
But for the past two weeks, its “prestigious selection of modern rooms and suites” have been taken over by 900 evacuees from Be’eri.
The kibbutz was the worst hit of them all on Oct. 7. Hamas killed about 100 of the 1,200 residents and took at least six hostages.
Their homes burned and bullet-ridden, family and friends dead, the survivors were ordered to leave.
The Israeli government moved them to this resort and told them they may have to stay for three months. About 900 are now at the hotel.
In the lobby, kids ride bikes and kick soccer balls. There are dogs and baby strollers, crutches, wheelchairs and tears. A table with candles honours the dead.
“It’s a refugee camp with fancy rooms,” said Iftah Celniker, the community manager of Be’eri, established in 1946, two years before the state of Israel was founded.
Hotels across the country have similarly been co-opted to house Israelis evacuated from towns around Gaza, as well as near the Lebanon border.
Displacement has its practical challenges, especially with so many kids. Be’eri residents have opened a kindergarten and are setting up a school system.
But they are also coping with the trauma of what they went through. The community has held about 11 funerals a day since the attack.
The families of the missing, meanwhile, are waiting to find out if their loved ones were abducted by Hamas or are among the bodies yet to be identified.
‘We need the world’s help’
On the patio outside the hotel, teens sat together in a circle of chairs, while a toddler rode her bike in a circle and residents walked the dog that evacuated with them.
Nir Shani said his son Amit, a 16-year-old who loved to surf in nearby Ashkelon, was in the safe room at his mother’s house when Hamas broke in.
They bound Amit’s hands and took him away in a car, along with the father of the family next door, and his daughter’s boyfriend, age 17.
The three Israelis were last seen being shoved into a car that drove off.
“The army said they have indications that he is kidnapped in Gaza,” Shani said.
“We need the world’s help.”
Shani, who was born in Be’eri, said he was not surprised by the cruelty of Hamas. What shocked him, though, were the failures of the Israeli military.
“The army took hours and hours to respond and engage,” Shani said. “That was really disappointing because we always thought we were protected.”
He said he had always reassured his daughter Be’eri was safe because the Gaza border four kilometres away was well-defended.
“And that wasn’t the case,” he said.
After 10 hours in a shelter, breathing through a pillowcase because of the smoke, Shani was rescued by the army and taken to the Dead Sea.
“It’s a good hotel,” he said. Being together was also a benefit because everyone was supporting each other, he said. “We are refugees, but we don’t live in a tent.”
The resort is part daycare, part infirmary. On a leather couch in the lobby, Eitam Messika was taking a break from his crutches.
The 15-year-old said Hamas set fire to his house, and the smoke got so bad the family had to jump out the second-floor window.
He landed badly and broke his foot. His father dragged him to a neighbour’s home until the army came that night.
“It’s hard to believe,” he said.
Not only Israelis died. Two Filipinos and a Sri Lankan employed in Be’eri were killed, said Leah Pimental, a caregiver also from the Philippines.
“They shot them,” she said.
‘Dad, I want to be buried with my surfboard’
Be’eri residents are still arriving at the hotel. Abida Bachar got there on Wednesday after he was released from hospital.
He was just in time to catch the popular Israeli singer Ehud Bahai and his band playing a show for Be’eri survivors in the packed hotel lounge.
Bachar watched from his new wheelchair. An avid skier and mountain biker, his right leg was amputated. He said his goal was to walk again in three months.
On the morning of the Hamas attack on Israel, Bachar retreated into his home’s safe room with his wife and their teenage son and daughter, he said.
They heard the gunmen break into the house and then try to open the safe room door. As Bachar wrestled to keep the door closed, they shot through it.
The bullets hit his son Carmel in the arm, and Bachar was shot in both legs. The attackers then started a fire and they had to cover their mouths with towels.
Hamas next smashed a small hole in the window and tossed in three grenades: One was a dud, and the others landed on the sofa, which absorbed the blast.
But then Bachar heard shots. They had stuck a rifle through and opened fire. His wife, Dana, 48, was killed. Carmel had lost a lot of blood and was barely hanging on.
He was a surfer and was planning a trip to Sri Lanka next month, but at about 6 p.m., he called his father over.
“Dad, I want to be buried with my surfboard,” he said.
Minutes later, he was gone.
The army came to rescue them that night. The soldier who came into the safe room to take Bachar out said it looked “like a slaughterhouse,” he said.
At his son’s funeral, Bachar honoured his son’s request and placed his surfboard over his casket.
Four more bodies were found in Be’eri on Wednesday.
“These are the things we are going through,” said Celniker, the community manager.
“There isn’t somebody who isn’t affected.”
The grandson of Holocaust survivors, Celniker said he could not help but feel like he did when he first heard the stories of what his family endured in the 1940s.
“This is the same feeling,” he added.
Few of the kibbutz’s 300 houses are livable, Celniker explained. While some weren’t sure they could go back to Be’eri, he was determined to rebuild.
Not out of spite, he said, but to show faith in a way of life that stands in stark contrast to the cruelty Be’eri witnessed on that day.
“I think the way for us to win is to bring Be’eri back to life,” he said.
Soldiers guarded the hotel entrance, perhaps more to reassure the guests than anything else, but some residents also had rifles slung on their shoulders.
Trust in the army has been broken, Celniker said. People will need to feel secure before they can go back, but he said it would happen.
“My victory will not be the death of Hamas. My victory will be building Be’eri stronger, building and safer for years to come.”
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