Israel withdraws troops from southern Gaza as war enters 6th month

The Israeli military on Sunday pulled a division of ground forces from the southern Gaza Strip as international mediators gather in hopes of brokering a temporary ceasefire six months into the war, the longest war involving Israel since the 1980s. announced that it had been withdrawn.

Israel has significantly reduced the number of troops stationed in the Gaza Strip over the past few months. Only a fraction of the soldiers who deployed to the region during the early days of the war with Hamas remain.

The last group of Israeli soldiers in the southern city of Khan Younis has now left Gaza to “recuperate and prepare for future operations,” the military has announced. The withdrawal of the soldiers of the 98th Division means that the Israeli army is withdrawing. actively maneuvering Israeli news media reported from southern Gaza.

But Israeli officials have vowed that troops will remain in other parts of Gaza to maintain “freedom of action and the ability to conduct accurate intelligence operations.”

Khan Younis’ withdrawal comes nearly four months after Israeli forces invaded southern Gaza, raising questions about Israel’s plans in the face of widespread calls for a calming of the conflict. It was also unclear what it would imply about Israel’s plans to invade the southernmost city of Rafah, where more than a million people have fled the fighting.

News that Israel was withdrawing its troops did little to calm Osama Asfour, a 41-year-old Khan Younis resident who has taken shelter in a tent in Rafah. Since the war began, troops have returned to the Gaza Strip, particularly in the north, where troops had previously left. Given these realities, Asfour said he has no plans to return to his city anytime soon.

“The military may say they left today, but they could be back tomorrow,” Asfour, who worked at Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, said in an interview. “I have no intention of risking my life or the lives of my family on an adventure.”

Even the Biden administration seems uncertain.

“It’s hard to know exactly what that tells us at this point,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told ABC’s “This Week.” “As we understand, and through their official announcement, it is actually about the rest and retraining of these troops who have been on the ground for four months, and not necessarily what we can say. , suggesting some new operation against these forces.

Indeed, even after troops withdrew from Khan Yunis, Israel and its forces remained on high alert Sunday, anticipating retaliation from Iran for the recent Syrian attack that killed seven senior Iranian military officials. Iranian leaders vowed revenge for the killing.

The Israeli government on Sunday did not publicly claim responsibility for the attack, but said it was ready to respond if Iran retaliated. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that over the past six months, Iranian-backed groups have carried out “many attacks” against Israel and are “increasing the threat.”

“Israel stands ready for any attempt to attack us from anywhere, both defensively and offensively,” the Prime Minister said ahead of the government meeting, according to remarks released by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Despite the announced troop withdrawal, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the military was preparing a “follow-up mission” that would include Mr. Rafah. “We will reach a point where Hamas will no longer control the Gaza Strip and will no longer function as a military framework that poses a threat to the Israeli people,” he said.

Against this backdrop of tensions, U.S., Egyptian and Qatari officials have begun talks. So were Israeli and Hamas delegations in Cairo on Sunday. Their aim was to reach an agreement on a temporary ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and the release of hostages taken when Hamas led an attack on Israel on October 7.

The outlines of a potential agreement have been clear for months, but the details proved to be divided. The terms include a ceasefire, the release of hostages, and the release of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Hamas said Saturday that a leadership delegation is coming to Cairo, but it is sticking to an earlier proposal it put forward in mid-March, including a total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which Israeli authorities have vehemently rejected.

The talks took place as the war enters its seventh month and anger against the Israeli government grows. Demonstrators held rallies in cities across the country, demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu do more to bring the hostages home.

Israel has routed Hamas in much of Gaza and fighting appears to be slowing, but analysts and diplomats say the war is stalled and there is no prospect of a resolution as humanitarian officials warn of impending starvation. He states that he does not appear to be standing.

Mediators are reluctant to negotiate a ceasefire because Israel is reluctant to agree to a ceasefire that would allow Hamas to reunite in parts of the Gaza Strip, and Hamas is wary of proposals that do not guarantee its long-term survival. I think it will be difficult to move forward.

“The war is not over yet, and there is no path in sight to ending it in a way that will provide the scale of stability and humanitarian relief needed in the foreseeable future,” said Israeli war expert Shively Telhami. Told. Palestine conflict at the University of Maryland.

The conflict has been prolonged by a power vacuum created by Israel’s reluctance to maintain the ground it has gained or cede control to alternative Palestinian leaders. This vacuum has created a breakdown in security and made it difficult to safely distribute much-needed aid. Amid the chaos and Israeli shelling, dozens of Palestinians were killed around the aid convoy.

Mohammed Rady, a 36-year-old restaurateur who fled Gaza City and is now in Rafah with his family, said he wanted more than anything to end the war.

“I’m frustrated and emotionally devastated,” he said in an interview. “We are exhausted after living in tents for six months.”

Report contributor: Iyad Abuheweira, Erica L. Green, Cassandra Vinograd and aaron boxerman.

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