Israel’s military on Monday (January 8) confirmed that it was pulling thousands of troops out of the Gaza Strip and would transition from a large-scale ground and air campaign to a more targeted phase in its war against Hamas. The shift would be completed by the end of January, Israeli officials privately told their American counterparts, according to a report by The New York Times.
Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, spokesperson of Israel Defense Forces (IDF), told the news outlet: “The war shifted a stage…But the transition will be with no ceremony…It’s not about dramatic announcements.”
The confirmation came just hours before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel for the fifth time since the conflict began on October 7 last year. He was expected to begin serious discussions on postwar governance in Gaza, protecting civilians in Gaza, and allowing more aid into the territory.
Here is a look at why Israel is pulling out its troops and what it means for the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.
Why is Israel withdrawing some of its troops from Gaza?
On January 1, Israel said it was withdrawing some of its troops from Gaza at least temporarily to re-energise its economy. After the October 7 Hamas attack, the Jewish state authorised the mobilisation of over 350,000 reservists for the war effort against Hamas.
This took a toll on Israel’s economy as many left the labour force for reserve duty or abandoned businesses in their hometowns. The NYT report noted that the country’s economy was expected to shrink by 2% this quarter.
In a statement made on New Year’s Eve, Hagari said: “Some of the reservists will return to their families and employment this week…This will significantly ease the burden on the economy and allow them to gather strength for the upcoming activities in the next year, as the fighting will continue and they will still be required.”
Notably, the US has been pressuring Israel for weeks now to scale back the ferocity of its attacks in Gaza. Last week, US President Joe Biden asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take a more surgical approach to the conflict, using special forces to attack the leaders and infrastructure of Hamas. In the statement, Hagari didn’t mention if the decision to withdraw troops was taken either to scale back the offensive or due to US pressure.
The withdrawal of troops has also come at a time when tensions between Israel and Hezbollah — a Lebanon-based Islamist militant group backed by Iran — have soared to new heights. Since the Israel-Hamas conflict broke out on October 7, Hezbollah and the Jewish state have traded a volley of missiles, airstrikes and shelling on the UN-controlled blue line separating Lebanon from Israel on an almost daily basis, according to a report by The Guardian. Earlier in January, Israeli strikes in Lebanon killed a high-ranking Hamas leader and a Hezbollah commander, further escalating tensions between Israel and Hezbollah.
How many Israeli soldiers have been called back?
This remains unclear because Israel hasn’t yet revealed the number of soldiers it has deployed in Gaza. In the statement, the spokesperson mentioned that reservists from at least two brigades would return home and three brigades would go back for “scheduled” training. The NYT said Israeli brigades vary in size, consisting of up to about 4,000 troops.
Does it mean that Israel is scaling back its operations in Gaza?
It’s hard to say. Speaking to The NYT, Hagari said as the intensity of operations in northern Gaza has reduced in recent days, the Israeli military would focus on Hamas’s southern and central strongholds, particularly around Khan Younis and Deir al Balah.
Another anonymous senior official told Reuters that although Israel was withdrawing some of the troops, it was preparing for an intense campaign in Gaza for “six months at least”.
“This (destroying Hamas) will take six months at least, and involve intense mopping-up missions against the terrorists. No one is talking about doves of peace being flown from Shejaiya,” the official said, referring to a Gaza district that has been the scene of heavy battles.
So far, Israel has failed to achieve its targets in Gaza, which included completely obliterating Hamas from the enclave and freeing the more than 100 people thought to still be held captive there.
There is also no clarity on what this new phase of war against Hamas would mean for civilians. Nearly 22,000 people, most of them women and children, have been killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7. More than 85% of Gaza’s residents have been displaced from their homes, according to the United Nations, and many have crowded into south Gaza, which Israel designated as safer but has still continued to bombard.