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Israel to withdraw some troops from Gaza amid new campaign planning

Israel to withdraw some troops from Gaza amid new campaign planning

Israel is withdrawing some troops from Gaza but preparing for an intense campaign to continue there for “six months at least” as well as expanding preparations for a Lebanon war, a senior official has said.

There is growing international pressure to curb an offensive that has so far killed nearly 22,000 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them women and children. Even Israel’s staunchest ally, the US, which rejects calls for a ceasefire, has started pushing the government to scale back the ferocity of its attacks.

Plans to send some reservists home from Gaza, confirmed on New Year’s Eve, mark the start of a new stage in the war, a senior official told Reuters, and may be presented as a partial response to those demands.

But Israel still expects heavy fighting in Gaza for much of 2024 as it hunts for senior Hamas leaders, even if there are fewer troops on the ground.

“This 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. Reuters did not identify him by name.

Not all of those returned from Gaza will go home. Some would be prepared for rotation to the northern border with Lebanon, amid fears of a wider escalation of the conflict, the official told Reuters.

“The situation on the Lebanese front will not be allowed to continue. This coming six-month period is a critical moment,” the official said, adding that Israel would convey a similar message to a US envoy conducting shuttle missions to Beirut.

Israel and the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah have traded near-daily volleys of missiles, airstrikes and shelling across the UN-controlled blue line separating the countries since the 7 October attacks in which Hamas militants killed 1,200 people, mostly Israeli civilians.

On Monday Israel’s military said five soldiers were injured by attacks from Lebanon, and Israeli forces hit Hezbollah “military sites” and “launch posts” across the border.

Any escalation could put the world on the brink of a regional conflict that could bring Israel into open confrontation with Iran, and suck in the US.

Israel and the US say the war is an existential one and Hamas must be “destroyed”. Three months into the war, although Israel’s military has flattened much of Gaza in pursuit of Hamas, the group remains a formidable military force.

Israeli troops have not captured or killed any of the top Hamas leaders they are seeking and, while the military says it has killed 8,000 fighters, that represents fewer than a third of the 30,000 men it estimated Hamas could deploy at the start of the conflict.

Nor has Israel’s government laid out how it will define victory against an ideological organisation that operates beyond Gaza in practical and political terms.

Smoke rises over central Gaza after a strike. Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters

If confirmed, half a year more of heavy fighting would dim hope of large-scale relief for Gaza’s civilians, almost all displaced and many desperately hungry and without shelter, clean water or sanitation. The UN has described the situation in the enclave as a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

On the first day of 2024, the death toll from Israeli attacks reached 21,978 people, most of them women and children, with 57,697 wounded, the Hamas-run health authorities said. Thousands more are believed to be buried under the rubble of bombed buildings.

Israel’s government has not laid out what future it sees for Gaza or its people when it declares an end to combat operations. But far-right cabinet ministers have been increasingly vocal about their desire to send Jewish settlers into the strip and displace Palestinians.

The finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, on Monday told a party meeting that Israel “will permanently control the Gaza Strip to ensure security”, the Haaretz newspaper reported. This should be done with permanent military presence and “establishing Jewish settlements, which is the backbone of security”, he said.

His ally, the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, called for Palestinians living in Gaza to move to other countries. Forced migration is illegal under international humanitarian law; Ben-Gvir couched his vision for the displaced and starving population of Gaza as a choice.

The war presents an “opportunity to concentrate on encouraging the migration of the residents of Gaza”, Ben-Gvir said, according to the Times of Israel.

The return of some reservists to civilian life is driven partly by a desire to bolster Israel’s economy, which has been battered by fallout from the war.

“Some of the reservists will return to their families and employment this week,” the military spokesperson, R Adm Daniel Hagari, said in a statement on New Year’s Eve.

“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.”

Military spending, a drop in revenue from sectors such as tourism and entertainment and supporting tens of thousands of people evacuated from homes in the north and along the southern border of Gaza have all taken a toll, which has been compounded by the abrupt loss of many civilian employees to the army.

“It is clear to us that the adverse impact suffered by the economy is substantial,” Amir Yaron, the governor of the Bank of Israel, said at a press conference on Monday.

“The defence and civilian costs of the war total around 210bn shekels [£46bn],” he said, and in addition to current spending, “the future defence budget is expected to grow on a permanent basis”.

However, he added that several months into the war the economy was adjusting and the return to work of some reservists would probably help. The 300,000 Israelis initially called up represent an estimated 10-15% of the workforce.

The Israeli public is broadly united in support of the campaign against Hamas, despite the economic impact and the fast-growing toll of Israeli soldiers. Since the start of the ground invasion, 171 soldiers have been killed in Gaza, 30 of them in accidents or friendly fire incidents, the military said in a statement.

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