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Israel-Hamas war drives thousands from their homes as front-line Israeli towns try to defend themselves

Ashkelon, southern Israel— Israeli tanks and troops are massed, awaiting orders for an expected ground invasion into the Gaza Strip that seems to have been delayed in the hope of securing the release of more hostages captured during Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 terror attack.

But in the absence of a ground invasion, people living in the front-line Israeli towns and kibbutzim all along the Gaza border — many of whom waited hour after agonizing hour for Israeli soldiers to come to their rescue during the bloody Hamas assault — are taking no chances.

Imri Budin is part of a six-man civilian self-defense unit protecting Kibbutz Re’im, which is just three miles from the fence dividing Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Before the unprecedented attack by Hamas, which the U.S., Israel and most of Europe have long designated a terrorist organization, Budin’s semi-automatic rifle lay gathering dust in a safe. At most, he would use it once a year for training — his effort to be prepared in the event of an attack.

If Israel destroys Hamas, who will lead the Palestinians in Gaza?

But that preparation was based on a belief that the kibbutz’s civilian defenders would get quick backup.

“All you need to do is hold them, eight [to] 20 minutes, until the army comes…. this is what we practice on,” he told CBS News. “We are the first squad to delay everything for few minutes.”

But on October 7, Budin and his tiny squad had to hold off Hamas militants for nearly six hours before soldiers reached Kibbutz Re’im.

The men told us they now patrol the kibbutz daily to protect it, even though the more than 500 residents who live there have been evacuated to a town miles away. Re’im’s evacuees are not alone.

The brutality of Hamas’ attack and the cross-border violence and that’s followed have triggered mass exoduses on both sides.

The U.N. estimates that Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes — which the Israeli military insists are all targeting Hamas and other militants — have driven roughly 1 million people from their homes in Gaza. But entire towns in Israel have also been largely deserted, with hundreds of thousands of people displaced.

Hamas’ allies in Hezbollah, another powerful Iran-backed group that’s based in Lebanon, right on Israel’s northern border, have exchanged deadly fire with Israeli forces over the past two weeks, increasing concern that the ongoing war could draw in other parties, and even other countries in the region. With that prospect looming, Israeli authorities have evacuated several towns near the Lebanon border over the last week.

But most of the displacement in Israel has been in the south, closer to Gaza. CBS News visited the town of Netivot this week, which found itself right on the front line of this war. A Hamas rocket slammed into a home, killing a grandfather, a father and his 14-year-old son.

Another small civilian workforce in Netivot mans a security camera hub 24 hours a day, constantly on the lookout for the next rocket or terrorist gunman.

Orly Masass, one of the emergency dispatchers who keeps watch over the city and its remaining residents, pointed to one of the monitors and noted that Gaza City, the seat of Hamas’ power for almost two decades, was visible on the horizon.

“People are terrified,” Masass told CBS News, adding that seeing so many people from their community, friends and loved ones, slaughtered by Hamas had sapped Israelis of their confidence.

In Kibbutz Re’im, Budin said before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, there would typically be an exchange of fire between Gaza and Israel several times per year. Since the attack, however, it has been almost daily.

As he spoke to CBS News, as if to highlight his point, the sound of incoming rocket fire forced everyone to seek cover in a safe room.

Budin and his fellow civilian protectors said they wouldn’t feel safe until Hamas was destroyed. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Israeli officials swore revenge, vowing to “destroy Hamas” and indicating that a full-scale ground invasion was imminent.

That plan appears to have been delayed, however, in the hope that more of the roughly 220 hostages still held by Hamas will be freed, following the releaseof four women over the past week.

Israeli forces have dropped thousands of leaflets on Gaza over the last couple days, urging Palestinians to give them information on where those hostages are being held in exchange for cash, and protection.

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