Israeli aircraft and tanks stepped up strikes in southern Gaza overnight, residents said after it announced plans to pull back some troops, a move the US said signalled a gradual shift to lower-intensity operations in the north of the enclave.
Israel says the war in Gaza, which has reduced much of the territory to rubble, killing thousands and plunging its 2.3 million people into a humanitarian disaster, has many months to go.
But it signalled a new phase in its offensive, with an Israeli official saying on Monday the military would draw down forces inside Gaza this month and shift to a months-long phase of more localised “mopping up” operations.
The Israeli official said the troop reduction would allow some reservists to return to civilian life, shoring up Israel’s war-battered economy, and free up units in case of a wider conflict in the north with Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah.
A US official said the decision appeared to indicate the start of a shift to lower-intensity operations in the north of the Palestinian enclave. Washington has been urging Israel to reduce the intensity of its military operation, amidst international calls for a ceasefire as the death count mounts.
But residents said Israeli planes and tanks stepped up bombardment of the eastern and northern areas of Khan Younis in southern Gaza.
The hints at a lowered tempo in northern Gaza came as the US Navy announced that the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier was returning to its home port in Virginia after being to deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean following the outbreak of hostilities.
Coincidentally, Iran’s Alborz warship entered the Red Sea, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported on Monday, at a time of soaring tensions on the key shipping route with attacks by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis, who support Hamas.
Artillery fire between Hezbollah and Israel has rattled the border since the start of the Gaza conflict, with Israel’s military saying it carried out an air strike on Monday.
The Israeli official said the situation on the Lebanese border “will not be allowed to continue. This coming six-month period is a critical moment.”
Any new escalation carries a greater risk of a wider regional war. US forces have already being attacked by Iran-backed groups in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
The Gaza war was triggered by a surprise Hamas attack on Israeli towns on Oct. 7 that Israel says killed 1,200 people. Palestinian health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza say Israel’s offensive there has killed more than 21,978 people.
“My wish for 2024 is not to die … Our childhood is gone. There is no bathroom, no food and no water. Only tents,” 11-year-old Layan Harara said in Gaza’s Rafah. In the city’s zoo, people camped out between cages holding starving animals.
Residents of Sheikh Radwan district in Gaza City, in the northern part of the enclave that Israel’s offensive focused on first, said tanks had withdrawn after what they described as the most intense 10 days of warfare since the conflict began.
“The tanks were very near. We could see them outside the houses. We couldn’t get out to fill water,” said Nasser, a father of seven living in Sheikh Radwan.
Tanks also pulled out of Gaza City’s al-Mina district and parts of Tel al-Hawa district, while retaining some positions in the suburb controlling the enclave’s main coastal road, residents said.
On Monday, Hamas’ armed wing claimed to have killed 15 Israeli soldiers after triggering an explosive minefield east of the Tuffah neighbourhood in Gaza city.
Tanks remained in other parts of northern Gaza and fighting in central parts of the enclave continued unabated, said residents, citing shelling by tanks of parts of the Al-Bureji refugee camp in central Gaza.
Hamas also showed its continued ability to target Israel after more than 12 weeks of the war, launching a barrage of rocket fire at Tel Aviv.
“Hamas Must Be Destroyed”
Hamas seized 240 hostages on October 7 and Israel believes 129 are still held in Gaza after some were released during a brief truce and others killed during air strikes and rescue or escape attempts.
Qatar and Egypt are seeking to negotiate a new truce and hostages deal.
“Without Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure being destroyed and its governance capabilities toppled, the war will not end,” Avi Dichter, a member of Israel’s security cabinet, said on Kan Radio.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday that the country must retake control of Gaza’s border with Egypt, an area now crammed with civilians who have fled the carnage across the rest of the enclave.
Retaking the border could also constitute a de facto reversal of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, raising new questions over the future of the enclave and prospects for a Palestinian state.
Washington said Israel should allow a Palestinian government to control Gaza when the conflict is over.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)