Israel pulling thousands of troops from Gaza as combat focuses on enclave’s main southern city

Palestinians wounded in Israeli bombardment are helped in a hospital in Deir al Balah, Monday, Jan. 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Thousands of Israeli soldiers are being shifted out of the Gaza Strip, the military said Monday, in the first significant drawdown of troops since the war began as forces continued to bear down on the main city in the southern half of the enclave.

The troop movement could signal that fighting is being scaled back in some areas of Gaza, particularly in the northern half where the military has said it is close to assuming operational control. Israel has been under pressure from its chief ally, the United States, to begin to switch to lower-intensity fighting.

Word of the draw down came ahead of a visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the region and after the Biden administration bypassed Congress for the second time this month to approve an emergency weapons sale to Israel.

But fierce fighting continued in other areas of Gaza, especially the southern city Khan Younis and central areas of the territory. Israel has pledged to charge ahead until its war aims have been achieved, including dismantling Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for 16 years.

The military said in a statement Monday that five brigades, or several thousand troops, were being taken out of Gaza in the coming weeks for training and rest.

In a briefing Sunday that first announced the troop withdrawal without specifying how many forces were leaving, army spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari did not say whether the decision meant Israel was launching a new phase of the war.

“The objectives of the war require prolonged fighting, and we are preparing accordingly,” he said.

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

Israel responded with a blistering 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 Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count.

Israel says more than 8,000 militants have been killed, without providing evidence. 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% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, sending swells of people seeking shelter in Israeli-designated safe areas that the military has nevertheless bombed. Palestinians are left with a sense that nowhere is safe in the tiny enclave.

With tensions remaining high across the region, the U.S. announced Monday that it would be sending an aircraft carrier strike group home and replacing it with an amphibious assault ship and accompanying warships.

In Khan Younis, where Israel is believed to have thousands of troops, residents reported airstrikes and shelling in the west and center of the city. The military and the militant group Islamic Jihad reported clashes in the area.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said on X, formerly Twitter, that it transported several dead and injured following a strike late Sunday in the Beach Street in Khan Younis. It posted nighttime footage showing medics carrying casualties to ambulances.

Combat was also reported in urban refugee camps in central Gaza, where Israel expanded its offensive last week.

“It’s our routine: bombings, massacres and martyrs,” said Saeed Moustafa, a Palestinian from the Nuseirat camp. He said he could hear sporadic explosions and gunfire in Nuseirat and in the nearby Bureij and Maghazi camps.

“Just as we speak, there is a big explosion not far from my home,” he said in a phone call Monday morning.

An Associated Press reporter saw at least 17 bodies, including four children, after a missile struck a house in the central Gazan city of Deir al-Balah. The casualties were taken to Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital. No other details about the blast were immediately available.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said Monday that 156 people had been killed in the past day.

The Israeli military meanwhile said an airstrike killed Adel Mismah, a regional commander of Hamas’ elite Nukhba forces, in the central city of Deir al-Balah.

Hamas fired a large barrage of rockets toward Israel, including at its commercial hub Tel Aviv, as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Israel has said the war will last for months. It has argued that it needs time to clear Gaza of militants’ weapons and infrastructure and to prevent Hamas from being able to stage more attacks. Israel has resisted international calls for a long-term cease-fire, saying doing so would amount to a victory for Hamas.

Shlomo Brom, a retired brigadier general once in charge of strategic planning in the Israeli military, said the troop changes may be a result of the U.S. pressure. He said it indicated a shift in how Israel was conducting the war in some areas.

“The war is not stopping,” said Brom. “It is the beginning of a different mode of operation.”

Israelis still largely support the wars aims, even as the cost in soldiers’ lives is mounting.

Over the weekend, the military said that of the soldiers killed since the ground operation began — as of Monday, 172 in total — 18 were killed by friendly fire while another 11 died by weapons or equipment malfunctions or accidents.

The fighting in Gaza has threatened to spread across the region.

Israel has engaged in nearly daily battles with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, to Israel’s north, and struck Iranian-linked targets in neighboring Syria as well. Meanwhile, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have fired long-range missiles at Israel and attacked civilian cargo ships in the Red Sea, disrupting the global shipping trade.

The United States has sent warships to the Mediterranean and Red Seas, providing protection for Israel and underscoring concerns the fighting could widen.

On Monday, the U.S. Navy announced that after months of extra duty at sea, the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier strike group will be heading home. The Ford will be replaced by the amphibious assault ship the USS Bataan and its accompanying warships, the USS Mesa Verde and the USS Carter Hall. The three vessels had been in the Red Sea.

The Ford was sent to the Eastern Mediterranean to be within striking distance of Israel since the day after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. Its accompanying warships had sailed into the Red Sea, where they repeatedly intercepted incoming ballistic missiles and attack drones fired from Houthi-controlled Yemen.

The Ford and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier have been part of a two-carrier presence bracketing the Israel-Hamas war. The Eisenhower has recently patrolled near the Gulf of Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea waterway, where so many commercial vessels have come under attack in recent weeks.

By Associated Press

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