In a significant development in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Gaza, thousands of Israeli soldiers are being withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, marking the first substantial reduction in forces since the war began.
The move comes as Israeli forces intensify their focus on the southern half of Gaza, signaling a potential shift in the dynamics of the conflict, newswire PTI reported.
The Israeli military, in an official statement on Monday, confirmed the troop withdrawal, indicating a potential de-escalation in certain areas of Gaza, especially in the northern half where the military is reportedly close to assuming operational control.
This move aligns with growing pressure from the United States, Israel`s chief ally, urging a transition to lower-intensity fighting.
The timing of this troop drawdown is notable, preceding a visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. It also follows the Biden administration`s recent decision to bypass Congress for the second time this month to approve an emergency weapons sale to Israel, highlighting the urgency and complexity of the situation.
While the withdrawal suggests a potential shift in Israel`s approach to the conflict, fierce fighting continues in other areas of Gaza, particularly in the southern city of Khan Younis and central regions of the territory. Israel remains steadfast in its commitment to achieving war objectives, including the dismantling of Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for the past 16 years.
The military`s official statement on Monday disclosed that five brigades, comprising several thousand troops, would be removed from Gaza in the coming weeks for training and rest. However, the statement did not explicitly mention whether this decision signified the initiation of a new phase in the conflict.
In a briefing on Sunday, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an army spokesman, acknowledged the troop withdrawal without specifying the number of forces being redeployed. He emphasized that the objectives of the war required prolonged fighting, suggesting that the military is preparing for an extended engagement.
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The root cause of the conflict traces back to Hamas` attack on southern Israel on October 7, prompting a robust Israeli response. The resulting air, ground, and sea offensive has claimed over 21,900 lives in Gaza, with two-thirds of the casualties being women and children, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza. Israel contends that more than 8,000 militants have been killed, although evidence supporting this claim is not provided. The blame for the high civilian death toll is placed on Hamas, with Israel asserting that militants strategically embed themselves within residential areas.
The repercussions of the conflict are not limited to the casualties. Approximately 85% of Gaza`s 2.3 million residents have been displaced, seeking refuge in Israeli-designated safe areas that, paradoxically, have been targeted by military strikes. This has left Palestinians in Gaza with a pervasive sense of insecurity, with no place deemed safe in the densely populated enclave.
As the troop withdrawal unfolds, battles continue to rage in the south, particularly in Khan Younis. Residents report airstrikes and shelling, while clashes between the military and the Islamic Jihad militant group have been documented. The Palestinian Red Crescent reported transporting several dead and injured individuals following a strike in Khan Younis, underscoring the human toll of the conflict.
Urban refugee camps in central Gaza have also become battlegrounds as Israel expands its offensive. Civilians in these areas face the harsh reality of bombings, resulting in casualties and a constant sense of danger. The Health Ministry in Gaza reported 156 deaths on Monday alone, highlighting the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
The Israeli military reported an airstrike that killed Adel Mismah, a regional commander of Hamas` elite Nukhba forces, in the central city of Deir al-Balah. In response, Hamas fired a substantial barrage of rockets toward Israel, including its commercial hub Tel Aviv, as the clock struck midnight on New Year`s Eve.
Israel maintains that the war, which it says will last for months, is necessary to clear Gaza of militants` weapons and infrastructure, preventing Hamas from launching further attacks. The refusal to heed international calls for a long-term cease-fire is rooted in the belief that doing so would amount to a victory for Hamas.
Shlomo Brom, a retired brigadier general with expertise in strategic planning in the Israeli military, suggests that the troop changes may be a response to U.S. pressure, indicating a shift in Israel`s operational approach in certain areas. Brom states, “The war is not stopping; it is the beginning of a different mode of operation.”
Despite the mounting costs in soldiers` lives, which total 172 since the ground operation began, according to the military, public support in Israel for the war`s aims remains relatively high. The military disclosed that 18 soldiers were killed by friendly fire, while 11 died due to weapons or equipment malfunctions or accidents over the weekend. (With inputs from AP)