GAZA. A Palestinian man walks by the remains of destroyed buildings following the Israeli bombardment on the main road of Gaza City on Tuesday, January 2, 2024.
GAZA. A Palestinian man walks by the remains of destroyed buildings following the Israeli bombardment on the main road of Gaza City on Tuesday, January 2, 2024.AP

Israel pulls thousands of troops from Gaza

JERUSALEM — The Israeli military confirmed Monday that it was pulling thousands of troops out of the Gaza Strip, a step that could clear the way for a new long-term phase of lower-intensity fighting against the Hamas militant group.

The confirmation of the planned troop drawdown came on the same day that Israel’s Supreme Court struck down a key component of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contentious judicial overhaul plan. While the plan is not directly connected to the war effort, it was the source of deep divisions inside Israel and had threatened the military’s readiness before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that triggered the ongoing war.

Politicians warned against reigniting those divisions and harming the national unity that has prevailed throughout the Israel-Hamas war.

Netanyahu has vowed to press ahead with the military offensive until Hamas is crushed and the more than 100 hostages still held by the militant group in Gaza are freed.

But Israel has come under growing international pressure to scale back an offensive that has led to the deaths of nearly 22,000 Palestinians. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has repeatedly urged Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians, is expected in the region next week.

In its announcement, the army said that five brigades, or several thousand troops, would be taken out of Gaza in the coming weeks. Some will return to bases for further training or rest, while many older reservists will go home. The war has taken a toll on the economy by preventing reservists from going to their jobs, running their businesses or returning to university studies.

New phase

The army’s chief spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, did not say whether the withdrawal of some troops reflected a new phase of the war.

“The objectives of the war require prolonged fighting, and we are preparing accordingly,” he told reporters late Sunday. But the move is in line with the plans that Israeli leaders have outlined for a low-intensity campaign, expected to last for much of the year, that focuses on remaining Hamas strongholds and “pockets of resistance.”

Israel has said it’s close to operational control over most of northern Gaza, reducing the need for forces there. Yet fierce fighting has continued in other areas of the Palestinian territory, especially the south, where many of Hamas’ forces remain intact and where most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled.

Israel has vowed to crush Hamas’ military and governing capabilities in the ongoing war, which was sparked by the militant group’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which 1,200 people were killed and 240 others were taken hostage.

Israel responded with an air, ground and sea offensive that has killed more than 21,900 people in Gaza, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count. The Israeli military says 173 soldiers have died since it launched its ground operation.

Israel also says, without providing evidence, that more than 8,000 militants have been killed. It blames Hamas for the high civilian death toll, saying the militants embed within residential areas, including schools and hospitals. The war has displaced some 85 percent of Gaza’s population, forcing tens of thousands of people in overcrowded shelters or teeming tent camps in Israeli-designated safe areas that the military has nevertheless bombed. Palestinians are left with a sense that nowhere is safe.

With tensions high across the region, the United States announced Monday that it would send an aircraft carrier strike group home and replace it with an amphibious assault ship and accompanying warships.

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